HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Pluralistic Tefillah Education: Hearing the Voices of Teachers

by Tali Aldouby-Schuck Issue: Nurturing Faith

At the open house for prospective kindergarten families at a pluralistic community day school, a young father asked, “Can you guarantee that my daughter will come out Orthodox at the end of her nine years here? This is very important to my family.” His anxiety is understandable. This young father felt that his daughter’s exposure to multiple expressions of Judaism threatened his family’s religious identity. With so many models of Judaism expressed within the school, something outside of his family’s practice may have a significant impact on his four-year old daughter’s Jewish identity. This article explores the diversity of religious beliefs and practices among community day school teachers and suggests ways that this diversity can support the growth of our students’ religious identity.

Beyond a school’s Judaics curriculum and the way it practices tefillah, the teachers themselves have a profound impact on the students in the school. The ways in which they pray, speak about prayer, and model serious engagement within the minyan significantly influence the students’ religious experience. In a denominationally affiliated school, teachers are generally expected to “tow the party line.” However, in a pluralistic community school there is no imposition of a particular ideology. The teachers are diverse in their religious attitudes, affiliation, and expressions of Judaism. How does this diversity impact the culture of the institution and the kids who learn within it?

In a pluralistic community school, teachers are diverse in their religious attitudes, affiliation, and expressions of Judaism. How does this diversity impact the culture of the institution and the kids who learn within it?

Pluralistic education at its best utilizes these differences within the faculty to expose kids to different ways of thinking about and practicing Judaism. It is not achieved by simply plugging students into different minyanim that align with their family practices. The question that drives education within this environment is how we can directly expose kids to a variety of Jewish expressions while affirming the choices to which their families are committed. This requires a safe environment in which educators encourage students to be curious about the choices other people have made while instilling a sense of pride in their own family’s practices. At Westchester Fairfield Hebrew Academy (WFHA), we call this “dynamic diversity,” and it is key to successful pluralistic education. To do this in an authentic way, the teachers who model Jewish life for the kids must also reflect the religious diversity of the community. A faculty comprised of teachers from multiple religious denominations is thus critical to the success of any pluralistic Jewish day school.

At WFHA, the religious backgrounds of our faculty are as diverse as our students. Our teachers identify as Modern Orthodox, Conservative, and “traditional.” We also have teachers who are secular Israelis, an identity that is in many ways a culture unto itself. I invited six Judaic studies teachers to discuss their personal ideas about prayer, G-d, and Jewish observance in order to explore our school’s dynamic diversity and its impact on our students. Each teacher whom I interviewed facilitates tefillah for various grades. These conversations reveal what distinguishes these teachers one from another as well as what binds them together as teachers of tefillah.

It is remarkable that regardless of the teachers’ backgrounds and religious affiliation, there are a number of shared attitudes toward and beliefs about prayer. All of the teachers speak about prayer with unquestioned reverence and feel that prayer is a crucial element of their Jewish identity that perpetuates important Jewish values. Independent of their religious affiliation, they all feel that prayer is a means of connecting us to the holiness of our tradition. They believe that it exposes us to the beauty of the world around us and helps us learn our place within it, stressing humility and connection. Each teacher understands prayer as an important vehicle to link us to our community, thus enabling us to transcend our individual needs. But these needs are not entirely suppressed, as all of the teachers conceive of prayer as an important means of creating space for self-reflection. Pedagogically, each teacher emphasizes the importance of understanding the language of prayer as a gateway for meaning.

In a pluralistic school with a diverse faculty, it is these commonalities that should comprise the core mission of tefillah education. In summary, every teacher regards tefillah as an anchor for Jewish identity, with the sacredness of tradition, communal responsibility, and personal meaning at its center. These core beliefs transcend denomination, and thus form a unified vision for what every minyan in the school should communicate to the students. Every family in the school, regardless of denominational affiliation, would be comfortable with these values being communicated around prayer. Though students will pick these values up over time by being exposed to prayer and the teachers who facilitate these minyanim, the school should also create educational programming that aims to explicitly communicate these shared values. This combination would be mutually reinforcing of these values and thus create the core vision of tefillah education in the school.

One of the most fascinating
elements is that teachers’ understanding of G-d does not neatly correspond with the theological doctrine of the movements with which they identify.

Yet, because of the diversity in background and hashkafah (religious outlook), there are some differences among the teachers as well, most of which revolve around two issues: commandedness and G-d. The question of whether or not one is commanded to regularly pray as a religious obligation is articulated unequivocally. Teachers feel either that one prays when one chooses to or that it is an obligation to do so, and these attitudes generally reflect the normative beliefs of the denomination with which s/he affiliates. Conceptions of G-d vary deeply, and one of the most fascinating elements of my conversations is that their understanding of G-d does not neatly correspond with the theological doctrine of the movements with which they identify.

Ellen, a Conservative Jew, does not believe in G-d as the result of a personal trauma that “shattered her faith in G-d.” Ruth, who identifies as a “non-practicing Orthodox Jew,” rejects the notion that G-d is an active presence in her life who judges, rewards, and punishes. She understands G-d in a more abstract way, as a being that is manifest “in everything that is good about the world.” Karen, a secular Israeli, has no doubt about the existence of G-d and feels G-d’s presence in her life. Rachel, an Orthodox Jew who is shomeret mitzvot and prays two to three times a day, does not believe in G-d. It was only Josh, an Orthodox Jew who grew up in the yeshiva world, whose theology reflects his movement’s doctrine. He believes in a G-d who is an ever-present resource in his life, and his obligations to G-d trump his personal fulfillment.

What is the educational implication of these differences? Given the fact that in tefillot, the teachers themselves impact the religious experience of the students, this diversity of religious perspectives will organically expose kids to different conceptions of G-d, faith, and sense of religious obligation. The power of pluralistic education lies in this very fact, and if a school creates supportive environments in which these teachers can share these nuanced facets of their beliefs, a sophisticated understanding of these theological concepts will be nurtured over time. In addition, kids will learn to be curious about other people’s beliefs, and they will learn to accept the differences between them as unthreatening.

How can we do this? For the older students, iyyunei tefillah would create opportunities for exploration both of their own beliefs and those of their teachers and peers. The experience of hearing an Orthodox teacher who prays regularly in a minyan and who models a deep commitment to religious life discuss her doubts about G-d can be profoundly empowering for kids. Questioning authority and iconoclastic thinking is a normal part of the emotional development of middle school and high school children. Creating a space for them to explore the ways in which this impacts their religious life is incredibly important if our goal is to keep children engaged. Exposure to the ways in which their teachers thoughtfully address these questions while remaining deeply committed to the core values that they all share regarding tefillah (the values I stated above) will strengthen the inner lives of our students.

Let us return to the young father I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Our task as educators is to help him understand that his anxiety is natural, but that it is an anxiety of every element of parenting; it is not unique to pluralistic education. Every parent worries that as his or her child matures, he will choose a lifestyle different than the one of his parents. As educators, our task is to help families control the elements that can be controlled, while simultaneously giving them the support necessary to accept the elements that they cannot control. Parents can control whether or not their children pray in a minyan that has a mechitzah or is egalitarian. They can control the frequency with which their children must pray. They can be assured that all minyanim will reflect a shared set of principal values about prayer, values such as connecting to tradition, creating a sacred space, searching for meaning, fostering a responsibility to community, and cultivating a relationship with G-d. But they cannot control what that relationship will look like, and neither can we. The starting point for all children must be the way in which their religious life is anchored at home; as they grow, they will develop their own ideas about religious life, some of which reflect their parents’ traditions, and some of which are unique to them. We need to reassure this young father that the true litmus test is not a guarantee that a child will be Orthodox, as not even a yeshiva can deliver such promises. It should be whether or not a school creates an open and safe environment in which children are encouraged to develop commitments to a deep inner-religious life.

As a pluralistic community, it is imperative to prepare students to engage in a Jewish world that is and has always been diverse. In a world of growing extremes, we want our students to recognize G-d’s image in the diversity of Jewish expressions that enrich our community. We will forever face the challenges of guiding students to find personal meaning and relevance in tefillah. But we face these challenges with the knowledge that tefillah is also a time to examine and develop a disposition toward the different voices and different models of Jewish practice. Across their differences, these voices give expression to a core of shared values and model spiritual curiosity with a sense of dignity and great appreciation for the other. ♦

Dr. Tali Aldouby-Schuck is the Director of Jewish Studies Curriculum and Professional Development at Westchester Fairfield Hebrew Academy in Greenwich, CT. She can be reached at tali.aldouby@wfha.org.

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Nurturing Faith

Faith is the most elusive quality to inculcate, the hardest to measure. Yet at some level, everything Jewish day schools seek to achieve depends upon it. The sense of belonging and connection that is fundamental to Jewish identity resides, at heart, in a sense of emunah, of trust and belief in something larger than ourselves. This issue considers factors that nourish Jewish faith of different kinds.

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