Jewish Day Schools as Incubators of Kavannah

Saul P. Wachs

Iyyun Tefillah

The following pattern has been observed over the years more times than I can count. Young children seem to enjoy prayer in school. As they grow older, some children seem to begin to “shut down” and then “act out” during prayer services.

The Jewish prayer experience is essentially built on words. What happens in the synagogue is about the interpretation of words, sung or spoken. Because traditional Jewish prayer is so connected to words and because these words were carefully chosen, intellectual engagement with the texts of prayer is an essential element in the preparation necessary for achieving kavannah in the prayer experience. Where this is lacking, pupils, particularly those in the middle and upper grades are much less likely to find formal worship to be interesting or valuable. This point has been reinforced in numerous questionnaires administered to pupils of day schools over the past twenty years. Lacking an intellectual connection to the words of the siddur, many pupils see little point in formal worship. Since the vast majority of those Jews who are active in the community have some connection to the synagogue, it is vital that the Jewish school provide the opportunity to gain understanding of the major themes of the liturgy.

Iyyun tefillah is one of two methods employed by teachers to help pupils make meaning out of the words of the siddur. The other method is known as bei’ur tefiillah. In bei’ur tefillah, the teacher explains the meaning of the prayer. In Iyyun tefillah, the instructor and the pupils jointly seek to understand the prayer as literature, poetry, rhetoric and personal statement. While there is value in bei’ur tefillah, my experience teaches me that the active participation of pupils in exploring possible meanings (including personal meaning) through the process of inquiry is a more powerful strategy for involving them in the study of prayer.

Here are some examples of questions that I have found to be useful in doing iyyun tefillah:

  • What does the prayer say? What does it mean?
  • Can it be divided into units of thought or structure?
  • Are there any striking grammatical forms?
  • What do you think happened to the author?
  • Has that ever happened to you?
  • How do you feel about what is written here?
  • What questions would you ask the author if you could?
  • Who is the Bible might have wanted to say this prayer?
  • Have you ever been in a situation where you might have wanted to say this prayer?
  • If you took the words of this prayer seriously, at this moment in your life, what difference would it make?

Some teachers prefer to have pupils work on these questions in writing and then have them discussed afterwards; others approach the iyyun as a discussion activity from the beginning.

Creating Experiences of Kavannah-Infused Worship

How does one create the kind of prayer experience that is rooted in tradition yet supportive of kavannah?

This is a challenge to any Jewish school, but it is particularly challenging to a school in which the concept of being metzuveh (commanded) is not an essential part of the ethos of the institution. Any school that stresses personal autonomy above traditional norms has to work harder to “make the case” for liturgical prayer.

The Trap

The following pattern has been observed over the years more times than I can count. Young children seem to enjoy prayer in school. As they grow older, some children seem to begin to “shut down” and then “act out” during prayer services. Upon analysis, it becomes clear that the prayer experience is essentially an exercise in skills. Since skills do not automatically reinforce themselves, there comes a point where for many pupils, there is little or no point to formal prayer. Because, on the surface, the prayer experience seemed to be successful, the teachers of the younger pupils are lulled into a false sense of accomplishment. The negative behaviors that make organized prayer experiences problematic in the older grades are rooted on what was not done in the younger grades—the lack of the element of depth into the prayer experience along with skill-learning.

Omek-Depth 1:
Kedushah and Yofi

A Key element that is typically missing in school-based services, particularly those conducted in classrooms and multi-purpose rooms, is the creation of moments of depth. Ideally, the prayer experience should be the deepest time of the day. How can this be accomplished? First, by paying attention to the aesthetics of the prayer space. I am convinced that there is a connection between kedushah and yofi (holiness and aesthetics).The Book of Exodus reveals the extent to which the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert, was based upon a careful attention to its aesthetic quality. We are moved by beauty and the visual environment helps to shape our mood. Involving the pupils (and their parents) in planning and creating prayer spaces of beauty not only affects the mood of prayer but also helps to give the pupils a sense of ownership over the prayer experience.

Omek-Depth 2:

The Mishnah (Berakhot 4:1) tells us that the great masters of prayer would pause “for an hour” before reciting the Amidah. Leaving aside the question of the literal meaning of “an hour,” it is clear that these pious individuals understood that one cannot just push a button and move from the ordinary (chol) to the holy (kodesh). Many of them had the advantage of praying in close proximity to nature and also praying at sunrise; nonetheless, they felt the need to transition into the mood of prayer with kavannah. What happens before the service starts affects the quality of the service. I now see teachers applying this principle in many different creative ways:

  1. Silence
  2. Guided or unguided meditation
  3. Walking meditation
  4. Singing
  5. A personal statement
  6. A creative prayer
  7. Listening to restful, lovely music
  8. A poem

In these and other ways, teachers help pupils enter into the spirit of prayer through respecting pupils’ need to make a transition from their mood preceding the service into a set of readiness to pray.

Omek-Depth 3:
Connecting Prayer to the Rest of the Day

A prayer service can serve the function of helping pupils and teachers prepare themselves for the school day and its joys and stresses. It can be the time to make pupils aware of important events in the lives of pupils and teachers. It can be the setting for people to react to, vent, celebrate, grieve as reactions to what is happening around them. A prayer service at the end of the day can serve the function of healing the bruises that inevitably emerge in the give and take of formal and informal interaction among the pupils, faculty and administration. Examples of questions that might strengthen the sense of community within the school include the following:

  • Does anyone have something good that happened today that can be shared with us?
  • So and so is sick, please include him/her in your prayer for healing (part of the Amidah).
  • X happened in our school today; we have to think about what can be done.
  • Many people are out of work right now. Their children can benefit from some signs of support. Ask yourself what you can do to offer support.
  • Something wonderful happened today in the X grade.

All of this is more likely to happen when there are clear lines of communication and a common agreement that the prayer service is an appropriate time and place to offer mutual support and strengthen the sense of community within the school.

Omek 4:
Plausibility Structures

When prayer is limited to the school, it can seem disconnected from life. It is valuable to seek opportunities to demonstrate how prayer can enrich life-cycle situations. One powerful example of this is participation by pupils and teachers in the shivah held at the home of mourners. When pupils come to offer support to fellow classmates or teachers who have suffered loss and participate in a prayer service, they experience first-hand the power of ritual to provide comfort. Another example takes place when people travel to a foreign country in which they do not speak the native language; when they visit the synagogue, they experience a sense of being at home. Where schools have trips to Israel, of course, this experience can be particularly powerful.

Staff Development

I take it as axiomatic that one cannot come to terms with something as a professional until one comes to terms with it as a human being. One of the blunders encountered too often is that of a teacher defining his/her task at service as policing. What is appropriate is for staff to try to model experiencing the prayer setting through the prism of kavannah. In order for this to happen, staff development opportunities can help to make the adults in the school community more comfortable with prayer. I have found that teachers who are given the opportunity to study prayers together are impressed with the depth of discussion that can emerge from a consideration of the ideas, values and beliefs that inform the text of the siddur. In my work, I have stressed the idea that teachers are not expected to “know the answer” to the great questions that human beings struggle with. When faced with such questions, It is not inappropriate for teachers to say to pupils, “I don’t know; let’s search together.” Because prayers are written in response to the challenges and joys of living, they typically raise questions that are of value in every generation.

A Role for General Studies Teachers

General studies teachers can also work to strengthen kavannah; here are four examples. English teachers can encourage the writing of creative prayers, which can find a place in the service. They can teach pupils to recognize literary and rhetorical devices such as assonance, alliteration, rhyme and acrostic. They can also teach pupils the skills of literary and rhetorical analysis. Science teachers can explore the concept of “contingency,” which deals with how small changes in nature would make life as we know it very difficult if not impossible (no rotation of the Earth, a change in the distance between the Sun and the Earth, etc.). Art and music teachers can help pupils improve the aesthetic quality of prayer spaces and introduce new music into the service. In Philadelphia, the non-Jewish principal of one of the branches of the Perelman Jewish Day School, trained as a physical education teacher, was intrigued by Birkat asher yatzar, a benediction that expresses gratitude for the wonder of the human body. She taught a series of lessons on the berakhah. There is no limit to the possibilities for inter-disciplinary units that combine prayer texts and other topics that already have a place in the general studies curriculum.

Lamah: A Rationale for Prayer

Finally, I would suggest that many pupils do not understand why the school has prayer. They understand madua there is prayer but don’t understand lamah. Of course both words, madua and lamah, are translated as “why,” but they mean different things. Madua seeks a cause; “Why does ice float” (a magnificent example of contingency) is a madua question. It can be answered through science. Lamah is a teleological question; it seeks meaning (“Why did this have to happen to me?”). The pupils know madua there is prayer (if it is a school requirement); they often don’t understand lamah, there is prayer—What is the rationale for formal prayer?

Gratitude, Appreciation, Celebration and Jewish Prayer

Robert A. Emmons, Professor at the University of California, Davis has devoted his life to studying the role of gratitude in building a healthy life. His research demonstrates that people who regularly get in touch with what they have just do better in every way. They transcend tragedy. They get along better with others. They are physically, mentally and spiritually healthier. The bulk of Jewish prayer is about thanksgiving, appreciation, gratitude. One doesn’t need the siddur to get in touch with what one has lost or the troubles in one’s life. I do not need the siddur to be reminded of my daughter Aviva who died in her thirties. But how many people awake each day and spontaneously get in touch with what they have? Professor Emmons recommends daily exercises to help people do just that even when they are not in the mood to do so.

For me, one of the great virtues of daily prayer is that it provides a structure for me to celebrate what is good in my life and think about how I can share it with others less fortunate. Taking things for granted is a dangerous weakness to which we are all prone. Since so much of Jewish prayer is about thanksgiving, appreciation and gratitude, I would suggest that it is not such a big jump to go from cultivating the habit of daily appreciation through prayer and transferring that habit to the people in our lives who enrich us each day.

Closing Comment

It is doubtful that many people (including me) can honestly say that he or she is able to pray with kavannah every time. To use an analogy, sometimes, I feel as if I am practicing scales. But any serious musician will tell you that without practice, one rarely if ever produces great music. Sometimes, I achieve deep kavannah. Sometimes, I start out with low expectations and suddenly a word or a phrase leaps out of the page because of what is happening in my life, and I make a strong connection with the text. Over the years, I have heard from former pupils who say, “When I am praying, I sometimes remember our study of the prayers and it helps me to connect.” Preparation is an essential component of our personal and professional lives. Preparation for prayer (cognitive and experiential) can make a difference in the quality of the prayer experience. Limiting ourselves to the practice of skills (important as they are) is not the way to nurture kavannah in prayer. Knowing how and knowing why are both important; both deserve to affect curriculum decision-making in our schools. ♦

Dr. Saul P. Wachs is the Rosaline B. Feinstein Professor of Education and Liturgy, Chair of the Education Department and Director of the Doctoral Program in Jewish Education at Gratz College. He can be reached at [email protected].

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HaYidion The Educated Jew Summer 2010
The Educated Jew
Summer 2010