“I felt like I was more spiritual and it was easier for me to pray.”
“It was really calming and I felt close to God."
“[I felt] enlightened...because I could marvel at God’s creations.”
These words are not the typical way that Jewish day school middle schoolers talk about tefillah. They are culled from reflection forms after 6th-8th graders at JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School took part in a pilot program called Makom: Virtual Reality T’fillah. Even at our school, where tefillah is usually quite stirring and ruach-filled, these comments caught my attention.
Though I have spent the past 11 years as madrich ruchani (spiritual educator) at JCDS, my prior career was producing animation at places like MTV and the Cartoon Network. That portion of my career has often provided me with creative fuel and a different lens through which I see possibilities for connection and innovation in Jewish education. A few years ago, virtual reality struck me as a fascinating medium. I was particularly curious about the notion of “presence,” a VR term that describes when our brains are tricked into thinking that we are standing in and experiencing places when we are not actually there.
Changing Location, Changing Prayer
My work often leads me to conversations loaded with “big questions.” When asking people to think about times they felt connected to God or something bigger than themselves—to recall a spiritual moment—I have found that more often than not, the descriptions involve a wondrous natural location: a beach at sunrise, a mountaintop vista, or being alone in the woods. I started to wonder: How does where we pray affect how we pray?
This happened to coincide with a sudden change in the accessibility of virtual reality. Prices were coming down, and personal devices for home use were becoming more ubiquitous. An experiment in VR tefillah seemed within reach. JCDS has always encouraged and prided itself on innovation, so in January 2020, we embarked on the project. With the help of a generous grant from the Covenant Foundation, we began building and testing ways to make people feel like they were doing tefillah in beautiful, natural settings all over the world.
Of course, spring of 2020 was a difficult time to launch any project at a school. We did our best to pivot and think creatively, even pulling off contactless delivery of VR headsets to 7th graders. Since returning to in-person school and the lessening of Covid restrictions, we have been able to test our original pilot.
Making Way for Awe
The project has a rather straightforward execution. As part of tefillah, students put on headsets for a few minutes. They choose an inspiring natural location and can “be” there for one of the psalms in Pesukei Dezimra (the preparatory prayers). Then we have them just pause for a moment, giving them a chance to just be wherever they are. Finally, we have them reflect on the experience. We tailored the project by building a custom app for the VR headsets that allows users to choose their location and also toggle on the words of different prayers so that they appear floating by the beach or over a snow-capped range. (See a sample here.)
The somewhat simple process allows us to fast track and generate these moments of spiritual connection that are so often reserved for those special moments in nature. Borrowing a phrase from writer Eric Liu’s book Imagination First, we were trying to “make way for awe.” A recent article in the New York Times reinforced what Jews have known for millennia: A little bit of awe can be very beneficial for our spiritual, emotional, and physical health.
Giving students these opportunities is not only important for them in the moment, but it also reinforces that we as Jews and Jewish educators place a high value on moments of spiritual connection. It is not only about learning the words of the prayers, or saying them within community. It is also about connecting these words with real, felt emotion. If a $250 headset can help do that, then I think it is a worthwhile investment. After all, when the Rabbis authored these prayers, the intention was to meet God’s world with wonder and inspiration. So what better way to drive that point home.
The two stumbling blocks for us have been around technology and timing. Many of the tech bumps, such as figuring out how to get the virtual worlds and prayer texts on the headsets, have been smoothed out by building and tweaking our app. Figuring out how to best store, charge, and set up the headsets took some trial and error, but now we have clear recommendations for those steps. We are pleased to have landed on a pretty smooth and replicable process. Scheduling has been harder to solve. Finding regular time to use VR that does not take away from existing tefillah learning and practice has been more challenging.
Integrating Awe with Routine
Where we have currently landed is that we use a rotation of small groups (5-8 students), in a space adjacent to regular middle school tefillah, and have them do their Pesukei Dezimra as VR tefillah. We still feel it is vital for them to reflect on the experience, but we also think it is important to matriculate them back into the “standard” communal tefillah. This helps to reinforce and habituate the sense that spiritual and awe-filled moments are directly linked to tefillah.
It is important to note that the goal was never to create a praying community made up of students wearing technology. Rather, the goal is to see how their prayer is changed not just with the headsets on, but more importantly, when the headsets are off.
Last year, when I did finally have a chance to take the 7th grade on their TEVA camping trip, we hiked to a gorgeous overlook. After we arrived and put our packs down to take in the space, the students spontaneously started singing Psalm 148, the very one that they had experienced in their headsets. I can’t say that one was directly connected to the other, but I can be sure that these students felt a true connection between prayer and being overpowered by our beautiful natural world.
Oren Kaunfer and JCDS are happy to share the Virtual Reality T’fillah program and curriculum with all who are interested. For more information, click here.