HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Reimagining Prayer

by Susan Wall and Judy Markose Issue: Tefillah

Two educators from the Pardes Institute in Israel who train and support Jewish studies teachers, provide guiding questions for leaders to grapple with as they seek to strengthen tefillah in their schools.

We are going to avoid the temptation in this article to reiterate what is challenging about tefillah in our schools. If you are reading this, hopefully you know what’s not working—or at least surmise that what is happening in your school is not ideal. Or perhaps you are already on the journey of reimagining what tefillah education could be. In either case, rest assured that you are not alone. In a recent survey conducted by Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz of day school administrators in 93 non-Orthodox schools, when asked what professional development opportunity for your teachers would be of greatest interest, “making prayer meaningful” was the number one choice. No other response came close.

What would it mean to reimagine tefillah experiences in our schools—thinking in the broadest terms, including skills, spirituality, personal meaning-making, etc.—and not only the time we traditionally set aside in our schools for actual prayer? We do not claim to have all the answers. Rather, in true Jewish fashion, we will raise questions and share what we do know, which hopefully will help you in thinking about the changes you might want to make.

Our understanding of this framework was informed by a group of our Pardes Educator Program alumni, who, in the school year 2010-2011, took on action research projects in their individual schools to explore new ways of thinking about tefillah. In asking many of these same questions, each chose a small area to explore and experiment with, which helped us to further refine our questions and understand the importance of reflecting on practice and taking first steps.

What is our end goal?

In true UbD fashion (and good pedagogic technique) we start with the vision question. What kind of “pray-ers” do we wish to produce? Do we want our students to be competent in the mechanics of prayer (how to pronounce the words, a familiarity with the geography of the siddur, when to bow, etc.)? Do we want them to be able to lead tefillot? to understand the meaning of the prayers? to find prayer personally meaningful? What about a connection to God? And finally, do we hope that they will seek out a Jewish prayer community as they grow to adulthood?

We imagine that many of you would respond yes to all of the above. We cannot argue with your vision; it is an admirable one, but we would ask if you have thought through the ramifications for those many “yeses” or even just one or two of them. Even more fundamentally, are the tefillah experiences in schools designed to meet any of these goals? What would be needed to do so?

Let’s start with examining Ralph Tyler’s four commonplaces (the student, the teacher, the curriculum and the milieu)—the four aspects that need to be thought about in any educational decision-making.

Who are our students?

This is less a question about the homes our students come from (a valid consideration we will return to) and more an issue of their age groups. We know what is possible and what is challenging for students at different ages and stages. We “think” tefillah works in the lower grades, as the students seem engaged in the singing. But they are far less engaged as they approach middle school and certainly high school. If our students were having problems with math in the higher grades, would we not revisit the foundation we provided in the earlier years? What did we do—or not do—that led us to this situation? Others have written about the importance of the seeds we need to plant in the earlier grades if we want our students to develop a sense of curiosity, awe, gratitude and “prayerfulness.”

And what about adolescents? Are we surprised that they can be difficult? We know these are the rebellious years—the time to challenge, to separate from adult authority and to establish their own identities. In the words of one of our high school teacher-researchers, the students “challenge many aspects of tefillah—from the existence of God to the relevance of the words to the purpose of prayer itself…for others the question of justice and evil raised doubts about the God to Whom they are to pray.”

In one action research study, where the teacher-researcher interviewed a number of high school students, one said that “when teachers ask us to open our siddurim or not to talk, we specifically want to do the opposite of what is being requested.” She and her peers spoke of not wanting their religious lives dictated by others. The result is what we all recognize as “student pushback.”

The greatest finding that emerged from the action research projects was that students are far more positive about and far more engaged in tefillah when they are empowered to make certain decisions and choices. Educators may question why with tefillah students should have input when they don’t in other areas. That is not entirely true as we often do give students choice as to the books they read, or what to do for performance assessments, for example.

But in tefillah we are asking for more than the acquisition of knowledge; we are asking for the students to open their hearts and souls, and that may require asking for their input. For middle schoolers, the research showed that it was less about the actual choices and more about the fact that they were being involved in certain decisions (even seemingly minor ones such as where tefillah took place or what siddurim or melodies were used).

Some schools have offered a choice of minyanim—ranging, for example, from meditation to art to discussion groups. Others have offered more traditional options such as a learners’ minyan, a singing minyan or a minyan for people who want to daven. Schools need to be honest as to whether they have taken the alternative route because “traditional tefillah” has failed, and this is the next best option, or is this an attempt to differentiate for interests/ability/knowledge or for taking into consideration different learning styles or multiple intelligences? If the latter is the case, should all students be exposed to a variety of approaches?

Finally, knowing what we do about ages and stages, are some of our goals more appropriate for particular age groups? If so, then tefillah education should look very different at different stages.

Who are the teachers who facilitate and support tefillah experiences?

A teacher-researcher wrote, “One of the biggest limitations of [my] project was taking into consideration our staff and their abilities. Many [teachers] disclosed a level of discomfort with tefillah and their own personal questions and challenges with God, the liturgy, Jewish traditions. Many dreaded the time spent in tefillah.” That was the teachers’ perspective. The word most often used by students throughout these action research projects to describe the teachers’ role was “policing.” Is that the role we want our teachers to fill?

Thinking about the teachers who either lead or are present in the service, are these teachers chosen because of their ability to inspire spiritual growth? their personal prayer practices? their special training in this area? (It is interesting that in every other area of school life, the teacher involved has training in that area. We need to provide this type of training for the field.)

Tefillah is often considered one of the duties (like recess or dismissal). What would it look like if we compensated tefillah teachers and gave them time for planning? What if those sharing the responsibility actually had time to meet and set goals?

Some of you may justifiably argue that you just don’t have the proper staff. Perhaps this needs to be a priority in hiring new teachers. Perhaps there are general studies teachers in the school or adults in the wider community – not the ones we’d normally turn to - who might be able to help students develop a sense of awe about the world, or grapple with philosophical issues?

The curriculum

In setting our goals, which are most attainable in which type of framework? When is it most appropriate to gather as a community for reciting tefillot, and which goals are best met through a course, discussion group, or elective?

Do we have measureable benchmarks that we assess? There are schools that have a tefillah “curriculum” in terms of what prayers are included and what about them is taught at each grade level. But how do we know if the students actually get it?

Some object to tests or grades for tefillah. It is interesting that most schools do grade Bible, rabbinics, and other Judaic studies—just not tefillah. Granted, it would be unreasonable to mark them on goals that cannot be assessed such as their relationship with God (and therefore these should not be goals). But what about their skills, their understanding of tefillot, their engagement with the issues raised by tefillah, etc.: are those any less measureable than comparable studies in other classes?

Given that our students seem to graduate with very disparate tefillah skills, might we want to think about a menu of skills, so that one student might leave school as a great Torah reader, another as a shaliach tzibbur for Minchah, another with the skills to lead Havdalah or give a dvar Torah and another as an excellent shofar blower? What would it look like if each was competent in at least two or three areas, so much so that they were in demand by their synagogues? Instead we give them a little bit of everything. Are we satisfied with the results? Might it not be time to differentiate here?


Milieu can be understood to be both about the physical space where “tefillah” takes place as well as the community that surrounds the school prayer community. Here we do need to think about the homes from which the students come, as well as the synagogues to which they do, or don’t, belong. What do we lose by not involving parents and rabbis in our deliberations?

What about the spiritual culture within the school? What and where do we help students develop an appreciation for the world around them, support one another, mark milestones in their individual and communal lives? Can we expect them to gather to recite prayers with kavannah when they do not feel safe, supported or valued in a school environment?

And where do we actually recite prayers? Is it in the classroom because we believe that small groups are best? Is it the classroom because we don’t have a larger room? Is it in a large room with all the grades together because we believe that that is best or because we only have one teacher capable of leading? Is it always indoors because that’s the best way to do it, or do we not have the time or confidence to take them outside? Are logistical obstacles undermining our goals?

What are the first steps?

If we are serious about change, we need to bring together people who care about this, be they teachers (Judaic and general studies), parents, administrators or students. We need to ask ourselves, Who in our schools or in the community is passionate about tefillah education? What would it look like to begin to reimagine tefillah, and get the help from within or without that can lead to success in this undertaking that is so critical for the future of our students? Hopefully these questions will provide a direction.

Our Jewish sources charge us to dream and to begin the work. Granted, taking on the challenge of tefillah is a difficult and immense undertaking. Yet we tell our students constantly that when something is difficult, we must persevere. We too, as educators, need to take with us the words of Ben Hei Hei from Pirkei Avot: בן הא הא אומר: לפום צערא אגרא— According to the struggle, such is the reward. May we all be privileged to begin the struggle and realize the reward.

Dr. Susan Wall

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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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