Expanded Opportunities for Tefillah Using Zoom

As we reach the seven-month mark of the Covid-19 shutdown, schools have been forced to think creatively. Looking at the fundamental elements of minyanim in school, there are a variety of ways to educate, inspire and help our children continue their development by implementing techniques that are uniquely built to maximize opportunities in the current landscape, especially for those working online.

Most Jewish day schools start their mornings with tefillah. Like a cup o’ Joe for the soul, davening should provide a spiritual awakening. That has become especially difficult to achieve, however, when we daven remotely, lacking the personal connection of a beit kenesset and the halakhic status of a proper minyan. Nevertheless, with a dash of creativity and a touch of research, the recipe for a successful virtual tefillah experience is easily attainable. Zoom provides students with meaningful opportunities to connect with the davening beyond the usual limitations of the classroom experience.

General Structure
Each school has its own pedagogy and has a general plan for tefillah that can be shaken up in the virtual learning platform. Perhaps in school, when a proper minyan is in place, there is only one shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) for Pesukei D’Zimrah (Verses of Song, a section of the morning service) and one for Shacharit (morning service). Given that Zoom disqualifies as an “official minyan,” options become more readily available. While some may still opt for the traditional shaliach tzibbur/congregation option, other options may better suit your needs. 

For example, aside from appointing someone to serve as a shaliach tzibbur, one student may be designated to respond “Amen” etc. on behalf of everyone. Others may elect to assign different parts of the service on a rotating basis so that each student can build his or her skills. Remember that while some may be shyer in person, being in the comfort of their own home may give those students the comfort to lead certain parts. By doing this over Zoom, the teacher has the opportunity to grow their skills. 

Additionally, labeling breakout rooms by different tefillot and sending the students into those various options can allow for small groups to practice together while the teacher floats between groups. This format can engender major strides in learning the tefillot or empower students to discuss their meaning.

Student-led Divrei Torah
Another way to increase student leadership in tefillah is to help them learn how to prepare and give a dvar Torah. Being on Zoom enhances our ability to work with students on their skills in this area. As mentioned above, breakout rooms are a great way, even once a week, to facilitate discussions about tefillah or the parshah, or to practice reading skills with the various brachot. These options can be conducted with the entire group on different days, or assigned to different Zoom rooms for small-group work. 

Students can meet one-on-one with the teacher in a dvar Torah room and learn the skills necessary to research, parse out specific points, navigate the inclusion of mefarshim, and acquire techniques for presenting to a group of people. Again, using this platform, we can teach and model strong cross-curricular skills that will carry over into their other subjects.

Backgrounds and History
Aside from these new pedagogic options, the greatest opportunity we have at our disposal during this pandemic is the ability to reach the visual and auditory learners. For example, using Zoom backgrounds, educators can find pictures of a variety of shuls all over the world. Each week a different shul can be set as the background. The background can be set to the screen of the Shaliach Tzibbur/Chazzan and pinned as the main screen, or the image can be shared, and each student can use that shul image as their background. 

Visualization is a useful tool in helping the student to feel transported to the shul being visited that week. Each week, the “drash” given by the teacher can be focused on describing the history of the shul (verbally in conjunction with a shared PowerPoint or Google Slides). This not only improves the tefillah experience but also interweaves history and culture into the curriculum. This practice can introduce students to Ashkenazic or Sephardic communities around the world. With additional planning, this process can relate to geography being taught in class or correlate to Jewish history as well—a shul in Greece on Chanukah or in Egypt on Pesach, for example. Students can then experience the lands where holidays took place. One might also reach out to these synagogues and see if a representative of their community—perhaps a rabbi, a congregant, or a student—can participate to share information about the Jewish community.

During this time, let’s take the opportunity to add new tools to our teaching belts. If they inspire even one student to gain a better understanding and connection to their tefillah, then it will have all been worth it. Whenever we are able to return to our buildings and conduct regular services again, let us try to blend practices that were successful before with others that we developed during the pandemic. This is who we are as a people: we cling to our traditions but also work to ensure that our traditions stay relevant and current.

Brett Kugler is a learning specialist at the upper school of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, and is serving as the High School Z’man Kodesh Coordinator. Feel free to reach out to Brett at [email protected].