HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Choosing Tefillah

by Rabbi David Teller, Stark High School Dean of Students Issue: Educational Innovation Fuchs Mizrachi School, Cleveland

For many adolescents, who deeply yearn for authentic spiritual experiences, the confined structure of tefillah remains an enormous obstacle to overcome. The square peg of autonomy, personal freedom, and free choice does not always align with the circular hole of Jewish core values such as chiyyuv, responsibility and obligation. Tefillah can become a frustrating experience of untapped spiritual potential, a wasted opportunity for spiritual development, and often misses the mark in serving as an authentic, meaningful and personalized relationship experience with the Creator of the Universe.

Our tefillah programing at the Stark High School of the Fuchs Mizrachi School was constructed with these unique challenges in mind, to achieve the following three goals:

  • Autonomy
  • Personal meaning
  • Individualization

We are striving to create experiences that allow for students to choose from a number of different options. We seek to create experiences that are personally meaningful to our students, that address areas of need and concerns that they want to explore in more depth. And lastly, we work to make our programs more individualized, targeting each of our student’s ba’asher hu sham, identifying where they are in relation to their sensitivity and appreciation of tefillah, and collaborating with them in taking steps to enhance that connection. For example, our daily “immersive tefillah experiences” offer a selection of options for students to connect to tefillah in a deeper, more personal way, outside the beit midrash, with the goal of channeling that inspiration back into their regular tefillah routine.

These programs have a number of features in common. Most importantly, they are completely optional. Students can choose to attend a session one week and not another. Faculty members do not pressure students to attend any program. Autonomy is critical, enabling the group leaders to create an atmosphere where the students that are at the workshop on a particular day are “bought in,” ready to fully engage in the experience.

Immersive Experiences

1. Menorah Park

Once a week, students have the opportunity to drive to Menorah Park, a local senior citizens home, to join or lead the service. Students sit and engage with the residents at both Shacharit and breakfast, and bring a ruach that has made the Menorah Park trip a beautiful community-building and leadership program for our students. It is fascinating to see students who sometimes struggle with their daily tefillah at school take on leadership roles at Menorah Park and make such a positive difference both for the residents and themselves.

2. Reflective Tefillah

Every Wednesday morning, students create an atmosphere of silent tefillah reflection. In a large double classroom, with ample room to walk around, students daven at their own pace in Hebrew or English, look at the commentary in their siddur or simply reflect, creating an atmosphere of silent, focused prayer and allowing students to feel, as one student described, “being alone together.” This “silent tefillah” is enjoyed for the first 15 to 20 minutes of the session. Each student is able to sit and experience their own thoughts and feelings, while being connected to a larger group engaged in the same process. The group comes together as a minyan for Kaddish, Barchu and the Shmoneh Esrei, and follow that with a tefillah discussion with the group’s teacher facilitator.

These discussions also follow a set structure. The students examine a particular tefillah in both Hebrew and English. The students then have an opportunity to share their reflections on the tefillah and discuss comments and questions that the tefillah evokes. The group facilitator concludes each session with an idea on that tefillah that was prepared in advance.

3. Arts-based Spiritual Expression

Students are given an opportunity to express their feelings, attitudes and perspectives both broadly towards tefillah as a whole and more directly regarding specific tefillot through the medium of art. These art-based initiatives give a voice to many students who have struggled to foster a connection to tefillah, allowing them to open up a different access point in their relationship with God. Last year the students focused on the different brachot of the Shmoneh Esrei, with each student focusing on a different brachah and representing it artistically. These selections are in the process of being published, and we look forward to sharing this incredible student-generated work with the rest of our student body.

4. Mindfulness Tefillah

Every Monday morning, students have the opportunity to join with one of our faculty members for a mindfulness meditation tefillah. Led by a trained practitioner, the “circle” is organized behind the stage curtain in our auditorium, where students are able to collect themselves in a silent reflective atmosphere and be “present” while using the words of tefillah as a conduit to better understand themselves and their relationship to God.

These are four examples of the seven individualized tefillah workshops that we have continued to develop and refine over the last three years. We believe strongly that students genuinely want to connect to something larger than themselves, that they innately yearn for spirituality and want to experience tefillah as an access point to develop their ongoing relationship with Hashem. By opening up different avenues for our adolescent students to exercise their autonomy within the structures of tefillah, by appreciating and respecting the individual tefillah needs of our students, and by striving to make tefillah more understandable and personal, we are hopeful that our school community will continue to deepen its appreciation for and connection to our daily tefillah experience.

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