HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
The Problem of Prayer in Orthodox Yeshivot
Tanenbaum’s article implicitly argues against a “grass is always greener” view that tefillah is healthier in Orthodox schools. The problem is community-wide and knows no boundaries.
According to a 2009 Pew Research Center publication, nearly six in ten American adults say that they pray at least once a day. The frequency of prayer differs by a number of variables, religion being one of them. Judaism scored second to lowest, just slightly ahead of “unaffiliated” and nearly twenty percentage points lower than the next closest religion, Buddhism. Within the Jewish community, the assumption is that this does not hold true for the Orthodox. My research demonstrates that this is far from true.
In a study I conducted of 355 recent yeshiva graduates, all of whom were spending a “gap year” in Israel, examining elements of the school system that affect religiosity, one of the most striking findings concerned the percentage who agreed or strongly agreed with the following statement:
Tefillah in my school was a spiritually uplifting event.
Of all the activities in the school day, prayer is the one most clearly connected to religion and religious experience, yet the results of this survey indicate that the overwhelming majority of students do not perceive prayer as being inspirational. Only 16.4% of all respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the event is spiritually uplifting, while in contrast, 20% of the same group found participation in a sports team to be fairly or extremely meaningful to their religious growth—almost 4 percentage points higher then prayer!
The first step to effecting change is recognizing that a problem exists. Results which indicate that more than 83 percent of the student body found prayer to be less than inspiring makes us question its very inclusion in the school program. The students who participated in this study were those who voluntarily chose to spend an extra year post-high school devoted to Torah learning in Israel—and even this group found prayer uninspiring. What would the students who did not choose to attend yeshiva in Israel say about their prayer experiences?
From the low scores on this question it is apparent that the schools are not successfully maximizing what should be a highly inspirational experience. Tzvi Grumet (“Creating a Tefilla Environment”) opines, “At a young age they [children] are required to perform rote reading in a language they barely understand. … The task is repetitive, and in many cases, the model set by the parents is far from exemplary.”
If this statement is true, it is no wonder that only 16% of respondents found prayer inspirational. Chaim Brovender (“Reflections on Role Models for Spirituality and Prayer in Educating Toward Meaningful Tefillah”) admits that most participants in prayer do not pray seriously. He feels that school prayer must be “special, noteworthy and very serious.” Praying seriously is difficult, and teaching others to pray is even more difficult. Most students do not know how to pray seriously, and many have little desire do to so in the present school model of prayer.
It is interesting to note despite having distinct roles within an Orthodox Jewish congregation and different experiences in the prayer service, men and women exhibit minimal difference (4 percentage points) in their attitude toward prayer. Both groups found it to be underwhelming. Perhaps this raises questions not about the external manifestations of prayer—praying with a minyan or in a synagogue—but about teenager’s ability to appreciate what Brovender calls “a natural event deriving from the human psyche.” He feels that it is a universal truth that people pray and that man has a need to enter into a dialogue with God. This message is not being understood or developed in the students surveyed. Schools are missing a daily opportunity to educate to religiosity.
In a series of interviews I conducted with 20 members of this population, only one interviewee agreed with the statement that “[school] prayer was uplifting.” She reasoned that this was “because the administration was very strict about people not talking.” She positively described Hallel that was sung out loud. Her school had a small Sephardic minyan, that she participated in, allowing her to feel special.
Improving the impact of prayer requires schools to make a number of important changes and commitments. Financial resources, time and energy need to be invested in order to effectuate real change. It is not the purpose of this paper to solve the crisis but to awaken the community to the extent of the problem.
Grumet and Brovender list a number of suggestions to try to make prayer more meaningful in the yeshiva high schools. Exposure of students to different visions of prayer and studying its underlying philosophy and meaning, exposing students to positive role models, allowing students to be responsible and lead prayers are a few of the ideas presented. Based upon the answer provided by the respondent who did find prayer at school meaningful, schools should also consider adding the musical component to the prayer service and breaking classes into smaller, more focused groups for prayer services.
Educating to the whole student, while bearing in mind that times change and students’ needs change, may help Judaism be more successful in transmitting the religion to the next generation, an area where they are not as successful as other religions today. Of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish denominations, based on three different studies, Judaism was the least successful in transmitting the religion to the next generation (Beit Hallahmi and Argyle, The Psychology of Religious Behavior, Belief and Experience).
The yeshiva is a primary facilitator of religious transmission. As such, time and money should be invested in determining which elements of the yeshiva high school experience are the most effective and which need more work. Perhaps by studying which experiences are least effective, yeshivot could reevaluate and reconsider how to maximize conditions already present to be more influential in achieving the institutions’ goals.
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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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