HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

The Real Estate of Tefillah

by Yaakov Green Issue: Tefillah
TOPICS : Tefillah

Among the many factors that impinge upon tefillah, the physical environment is one that sometimes goes unnoticed. Whether or not a school has a designed space for davening, thought should be given to the literal, as well as metaphorical, place of prayer in a school.

Every year colleagues in our school, and others around the country, debate what to do about the shameful lack of decorum displayed by many twelve and thirteen year-old students at bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. “Don’t they know how to behave in shul? Don’t they know what being in a sanctuary means....?”

And yet, an obvious answer everyone tries to avoid is simply no, they do not. They find synagogue less solemn, less beautiful and less understandable than the previous generation. The quiet pews, the sacred decor and accoutrements of a place of prayer have less of a visceral impact, mainly because there is less exposure to them, and our students, therefore in turn, understand less of what is expected in such a place. Davening at our school takes place in a classroom, and many of our students rarely attend synagogue services.

School must therefore shoulder an ever-growing burden of tefillah education. Until recently at our high school, students had mandatory prayer three times weekly and had to choose between a traditional mechitzah minyan and a contemporary minyan that included a traditional egalitarian service. Neither minyan met with overall success or excitement. The vast majority of students attended the contemporary service with just a handful of students choosing the traditional mechitzah option.

The contemporary service was held in a multipurpose room that became a classroom immediately following prayers, and the traditional service met in either the science lab or the art room. When science or art classes had major projects with large set-ups, the minyan was displaced to a random classroom or the school lobby. If sufficient chairs were unavailable, students sat on tables instead.

While prayer is a personal experience, a private endeavor of the heart, it has been a sociological value of our peoplehood for a very long time. Tefillah is a word most often used when describing the actions of a community—a tzibur, a kehillah, a kahal. A congregation gathers together to a specific sanctified location with a common mind and purpose.

Within the very fabric of institutionalized Jewish prayer is the goal to recreate the Holy Temple experience. The beit knesset, a house of gathering, was meant to recreate a mikdash me’at, the Holy Temple in miniature. When we pay attention to the length of prayer, the amount of prayer, the variety of types of prayer, but we ignore where we pray, can we really hope to educate our students about a prayer experience that is meant to evoke the feelings of entering the Holy Temple?

When our school refocused on our goals—students who were fluent and comfortable enough with prayer that occasional inspiration through prayer would occur; students who could choose to pray and know how to pray— the importance of atmosphere, of sacred space became dramatically evident. The ancient rabbis created the experience of prayer in a beit knesset for the very purpose of our stated goals. Tefillah in synagogue creates fluency within a common language of ritual and practice through which Jews can engage spirituality as a regular part of their every day. And despite the regularity, the overall experience of a beit knesset should feel inspirational.

To stay more aligned with our goals we instituted two crucial changes. Our high school moved to a schedule of daily prayer each and every day of the school week. Teaching the habits of prayer would truly be a daily habit, and this shift kicked up much less of a stir than we expected. It actually felt like a natural transition.

The second change had a greater impact: we designated a room for prayer. With only one room newly made available, it was designated to address the more pressing needs of one minyan. No longer did the participants of the traditional mechitzah service travel from location to location throughout the week, nor do they spend the first few minutes of every day rearranging the chairs and desks, then reassembling a classroom at the end of prayers.

Students walk into a room set up as a synagogue, a bright, orderly space that conveys an impression of kedushah. Each student takes a siddur, many begin to wrap their tefillin, and prayers begin. There is, of course, some typical quieting down that needs to take place, but the struggle that once existed to remind students of the purpose of the place has evaporated. Students no longer walk into tefillah geared up to fight, and teachers don’t preemptively prepare for battle.

The students instinctively know when they enter that this place is different, and so must be their behavior. The mechitzah minyan that once struggled to reach a quorum now struggles to find seats when eighth graders opt to join in. Just over half our student body participate in this minyan, and it is at this minyan that they are learning the skillset of tefillah. They learn not just the skills needed to turn to the correct page and sing the words of our people, but also how to respect the sanctity of space and how silence can be solemn and comfortable. They learn how to connect to each other without cellphones and without words. They are learning what the physical atmosphere of prayer feels like because we have deliberately chosen to teach just that.

Our contemporary minyan service is still well attended, still meets in a multipurpose room, and noticeably, still suffers from significant decorum challenges each and every day. Attempts to elicit more respect for the endeavor of prayer often falls on deaf ears. The students enter a room in disorder, quickly abandoned after a class, and they reluctantly file into the room that resembles nothing like a sacred space. It would be difficult to say that all the students’ challenges in prayer would cease through the room’s extreme makeover. However, space, along with the conscious and subconscious reactions it evokes, plays an extremely important and often overlooked role in the Jewish prayer experience.

As tefillah leaders and educators, we must remember that our lessons must transmit more than words and songs; we must be cognizant of the holistic quality of Jewish prayer. What does synagogue sound like, smell like, feel like and look like? Our students must be made to ask themselves, “How comfortable am I in a space that truly feels like a space for prayer? How does it make me feel, and what do I want to do about that?”

All of this is prayer. All of this is part of the Holy Temple experience, and it must all be part of our final product. We must plan for it, and perhaps only then will our students display a sense of awe and decorum in our synagogues.

Rabbi Yaakov Green is assistant principal of high school Judaic studies at the Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton, Florida. He can be reached at greeny@dkja.org.

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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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