HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Prayer in a Newly Merged School
Maayan confronted parents with hardened and conflicting expectations about school tefillah. Her efforts to collaborate with them and forge a new practice of tefillah acceptable to all speaks to the diversity in all our schools.
“You have too much kavvanah at Mirowitz.” Just the other day, I heard these words from a parent at my school who is unsettled with the changes in tefillot that have resulted from the school’s recent merger. Behind these words lies an issue that is paramount to the development of our young school.
Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School was born this year, a product of a venture marking the first instance in which Conservative and Reform day schools have merged. The new entity is envisioned as a pluralistic Jewish community school, primarily serving the Conservative and Reform communities of St. Louis.
“My children complain about all of the kumbaya at Mirowitz,” another parent boldly stated. By contrast, a third parent complained to me that since the merger, the joy in tefillot has been diminished, and her child is generally bored during services. “What happened to the warmth?” she said. Yet another parent complained: “Why don’t they sit on the floor like they used to? It was so cozy that way. It’s such a shame that the whole school doesn’t pray at one time anymore.”
These opposing attitudes exemplify one of the many challenges facing our community as we work to build this newly joined institution. The comments expressed by these two groups of parents illustrate what I refer to as “the keva-kavvanah conundrum.”
Bringing together families from various backgrounds to pray together is an issue at the heart of our merger. We continue to work closely with our parents, trying to understand their emotions, comfort levels and desires for prayer at Mirowitz, while building a program that will engage their own children in prayer for life.
The challenge at Mirowitz stems from our deep-seated goal of exposing our students to tefillot in the styles of both of our legacy schools. We are committed to creating a community in which every student not only becomes comfortable with both a Reform and Conservative style of service, but also can find meaning in the variety of traditions. It is our hope that they will never walk into a shul or a temple and feel like a stranger, or feel that another Jew’s tradition is any less Jewish than their own.
Unfortunately, these goals are precisely the root of our conundrum. Along with the general apprehension toward change of any sort that has accompanied our transition this year, a theme has emerged that is at the same time fascinating and troubling. It would appear that many of our families view kavvanah as primarily a Reform value, and keva as predominantly a Conservative value.
One might surmise that our keva-kavvanah conundrum is simply our parents’ desire for our day school tefillot to look, sound and feel just like worship services at their own synagogues. It may seem that parents are simply resistant to change and uncomfortable with the “other.” I believe it is more than that. I believe we are struggling with a small nuance that, over the years, has indeed come to delineate the style of tefillot in the Reform and Conservative movements.
Keva typically refers to the fixed words and order of the prayers, and kavvanah refers to the intention one brings to them. So what are Mirowitz parents referring to when they use these terms? They talk about keva as the style of tefillah in which we recite the words of each prayer with a steady flow, with no breaks in the service to discuss or teach the meaning of the prayers. In short, keva implies a fast-paced service with tunes that generally stay the same every day. When they refer to kavvanah, they are identifying anything that leads to feelings of connection to God (and to others in their community). This includes the traditional definition of kavvanah, but also has come to include other ways of creating these connections: trying out different tunes, having guitar music, stopping to discuss the meaning and intent of the prayers, even just having a cozy atmosphere or swaying together. The use of the term kavvanah in this conversation refers to our emphasis on taking the time to create spirituality, even if it means not finishing all of the prayers by the 9 am ending time.
Tefillot at Our School
In an effort to reap the benefits of both of these styles, tefillot at Mirowitz are slightly different each day of the week. We developed the tefillah model for our new school after surveying many other existing Jewish community schools. At most community day schools around the country, a typical program includes a Conservative service on all but one day a week. This special day is often called “alternative tefillot day.” At Mirowitz, we felt that the best way to retain equal respect and build comfort was to make both the Reform and Conservative traditions part of our regular program, not as “alternatives” to it. On Mondays and Wednesdays, some of the tunes are more reminiscent of those you’d hear in the local Conservative synagogues and we say mechayyeih ha-meitim, God revives the dead. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the tunes are more reminiscent of what you might hear at summer camp or a Reform synagogue, and we say mechayyeih ha-kol, God brings all things to life.
A Broader View
But when did kavvanah become kumbaya? And has there ever been a value placed on keva free of kavvanah?
A publication of the Solomon Schechter Day School Network written by Dr. Saul Wachs clarifies that it is certainly not a value of the Conservative movement to choose keva entirely over kavvanah. In “Towards a Theory of Practice: Conducting Services for and with Children and Teens in Jewish Day Schools,” Wachs advocates for omek, depth: “When tefillah consists of skills and little more, there comes a time when, for many pupils, skills no longer reinforce themselves.” Young Jews must feel a deeper connection with the meaning of prayer and its potential influence on their lives.
Learning from General Education
As an educator, I see parallels between our keva-kavvanah conundrum and developments in secular education in America. Over the last half-century, we have come full circle in math and literacy education in this country. We experienced an era of throwing math fact practice out the window for the higher purpose of building conceptual math. We remember the days when the teaching of phonics was thought to be misdirected and outdated, and cast it aside in favor of a vehemently philosophical whole-language approach. Those of us who have been around long enough remember our passionate conviction about conceptual math and whole language as the wave of the future. We also remember our guilty realization that, indeed, children need both facility with concept and fluency with fact, the rigid keva of phonics together with the kavvanah of whole language.
Surely there is much to be learned from the evolving philosophy of general studies education. Children—and Jews of all ages—need both keva and kavvanah. No day school educator hopes to raise a Jew who puts on tefillin at minyan every morning but who mindlessly recites the prayers with no heart. Likewise, no day school hopes that their graduates will grow up to be unfamiliar with the basic prayer service found in any Jewish setting.
How do we accomplish excellence in secular education today? We show a full commitment to both facts and concepts, and we balance one with the other. Each is our goal, and we measure our success through targeted practice and assessment. We attend professional development for each of those skills, and stretch our academic program year after year.
When was the last time we attended a professional workshop on excellence in tefillot? When was the last time we stated our goals for skill development and content knowledge of prayers? Have we conducted an in-depth study of different prayer options, or did we just create a list? How many of us closely supervise our tefillot programs? Are we inclined to delegate this sacred responsibility to a “prayer specialist,” or outsource it to community clergy?
Vision of the Future
It is our duty to be both custodians of keva and generators of kavvanah.
A Mirowitz parent who is a Conservative rabbi recently told me that his synagogue clergy meets weekly to talk about “what tunes will NOT change in services that week.” The purpose of this practice is to guard the keva. This kind of vigilance is also our duty in day schools. We need to do more than just invite in community clergy to lead our children in prayer. We need to do more than just try to “hire the right person” and appoint them to take care of that part of the day. Indeed, our students must achieve a comfort level with the structure, the tunes and the flow of traditional Jewish prayer.
But with equal diligence, we must also be guardians of kavvanah. Day school students (and educators!) are incredibly fortunate. We get to start each of our school days with depth and meaning. We have the opportunity to converse with the Divine and allow the prayers to teach us how we should behave throughout our day, how we should interact with our community and how we can strengthen our relationship with God. Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us that the very act of prayer can bring about holiness.
As educators, it is our duty to bring together the worlds of keva and kavvanah—and to safeguard the balance between the two.
Our students should be able not only to recite the prayers, but to articulate that like Balaam who first uttered the words mah tovu, we have the power to turn our curses into blessings. Like Miriam and the children of Israel who proclaimed mi khamokha, we should sing songs of joy for our freedom. And, as we are reminded in avot ve-imahot, we should strive to have a unique relationship with God. The fixed prayers children say in the morning should lead them to behave with kindness, ethics and integrity throughout their day.
We are on a journey at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School to create a practical definition of pluralism in our tefillot. We hope to infuse children with both skills and omek—keva and kavvanah—and to continually nurture our students’ growth and deepen their love of Judaism. Our journey is far from complete, and we are proceeding with our eye on the future of the Jewish community, a commitment to self-reflection, and a desire to achieve excellence.
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Most day schools are committed to cultivating Jewish prayer, tefillah, as a spiritual practice. In practice, they often find the obstacles formidable: lack of curriculum, knowledgeable and passionate prayer leaders, student interest, awareness of goals, to name a few. Articles here aim to help schools clarify their approach and strengthen the educational bases of school tefillah.
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