HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Teaching for Prayer

by Moshe J. Yeres Issue: Tefillah
TOPICS : Tefillah Pedagogy

Yeres cogently argues a position contrary to the one prevailing in most day schools: schools are places that should teach prayer, not hold services.

TanenbaumCHAT, a high school in Toronto, has never had a mandatory tefillah period during the school day. The school does include some prayer readings on the school’s Yom commemorations (Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzmaut). However, these are primarily memorial and solemn in nature, and are usually chanted by individuals. We do include set prayer at different points during our shabbaton retreats for students in each grade, most of which are required, some of which are optional (in a variety of types of services). And we include a daily period of time for prayer during our end of year graduation trip and also for other overnight school trips. When major tragedy strikes (terror attacks, military campaigns in Israel, major natural disasters), we sometimes do a prayer reading over the PA system as part of our update to students. And yet, there is no mandatory tefillah period at TanenbaumCHAT, nor has there been in the fifty years of the school’s history.

The school does hold a traditional Orthodox service every morning at each campus (followed by breakfast) before the start of classes, to which about five percent of the student body and some staff attend with a degree of regularity. Attendance is optional and is primarily from the more traditional families. There is also an optional daily Minchah minyan at the end of the midday lunch break. And the school has over the years attempted to provide non-Orthodox services both daily and on special occasions (Purim) with little student response. But there exists no required tefillah for the student body as a whole.

Visitors have at times asked for the reason for this. I do not know that this was founded on any specific philosophical and theological reason. From what I have been told, the school in its very early formation may not have included tefillah in its school day, as a way of establishing its own institutional identity as different and separate from the lower school with which it was initially connected. I do not believe that there is a deeper reason for this, and in fact it appears to have just “growed” this way, to paraphrase Topsy (from Uncle Toms Cabin).

Having said that, this de facto situation does highlight the paradox of institutionalizing (Jewish) student prayer at school. We can surely mandate and require students’ attendance, but we can never force anyone to actually pray. Prayer starts in the heart, not in the seat. It might be easier for a school with a narrower spectrum of Jewish identity to find a shared middle ground for specific institutionalized prayer according to a particular Jewish affiliation and practice. However, the success of our school lies not only in its size but in the diversity of its school families.

At TanenbaumCHAT, where students come from homes that range from very Orthodox to very secular, and which represent pretty much all the hues of Jewish belief/practice and non-belief/non-practice, in an increasingly large circle of Jewish inclusiveness, it is surely a challenge to build a system of school prayer that will offer in it something for everyone. Though it has been said that there are “no atheists in foxholes,” high school students do not mostly feel themselves in daily do-or-die situations of helplessness. (Those few that do are usually flagged by teachers, guidance and professional staff for personal support and counseling.) And our academic- minded students have learned that only serious study, not prayer will enable them to get good grades.

Nevertheless, preparation for Jewish life after high school should require a fluency in both basic mechanisms of tefillah and a sense of understanding for prayer. The way to achieve this—or at least set the groundwork for it—is through a well-developed course of study on prayer, which the overwhelming number of students take in their last year. While a number of topics are covered during this course, the first quarter of the year is devoted to prayer—not prayer recital and chanting, but studying and probing and discussing the roles that prayer plays in Jewish tradition and identity. For prayer to have an impact on senior high school students, the classroom intellectual approach to prayer (itself not an intellectual experience) has the ability to be successful. I am suggesting tefillah education as the way to address this necessary topic to high school teens.

The course includes a number of readings about prayer and relationship with God (which is actually what prayer is), readings by Jewish thinkers and theologians meant to develop and stimulate student discussion. The readings include excerpts from “Prayer as Dialogue” (in Besdin A., Reflections of the Rav), Abraham Heschel (Quest for God), Louis Jacobs (Jewish Prayer), Eliezer Berkovits (Prayer), Hillel Zeitlin (“And So I Was Left Alone” in Derovan, D., Prayer), Jonathan Sacks (Koren Siddur), Hayim Donin (To Pray as a Jew), and others, as well as from Maimonides (Mishneh Torah).

In class we try to deal with a number of specific issues, such as the following:

Why does God command us to pray? Why does He want us to pray? Is it important for man to feel dependent on God? Is it important for man to trust Him? Is it important for man to confront himself?

Is prayer obligatory or only reserved for crises? What sort of crises?

Why has tradition identified three daily times for prayer? What does this mean about the sacrifices in the Beit Hamikdash? What does it say about my connection to the Patriarchs? The Matriarchs? About sensitivity to times of day in nature?

How did the biblical prophets pray? Were their prayers successful? Why was there a need to create a formalized siddur? Why not simply pray spontaneously? What is the structure of the Amidah, and why it is this way? Is there a roadmap for prayer?

What does prayer say about our relationship with God? Is prayer a monologue or a dialogue? Does God answer prayer? How do I know? Can prayer change us?

What is kavannah and what is its role? What is the role of meditation?

How can I feel alone with God? How is that different from feeling alone by myself? How does one travel the road on a quest for spirituality? What is the relationship of the individual and the community here?

These tefillah education classes allow staff and students to deal with fundamental issues of prayer, but do not include actual student prayer. They help direct students to ask the proper questions and develop the sensitivity to why they—and others—may want to pray.

Still, can tefillah be taught without requiring actual mechanical reading? I have already alluded above to one response. One cannot force and mandate tefillah; one can only mandate attendance at tefillah. At best a school can offer opportunities for students to pray if they feel so inclined. I know of no school that offers a grade for actual prayer during their mandatory tefillah period; any grade or mark at best tracks students’ lack of disturbance during this period; at worst it tracks seat time.

I do not believe that community schools that require students to choose from a menu of options during scheduled required tefillah periods produce graduates with a better percentage of post high school maintenance of tefillah. Moreover, I do not accept that those graduates have a better sense of what tefillah means and is supposed to do, simply from having been required to participate in a high school tefillah period. And from what I have read, real-time student interest during actual required prayer periods is not exactly supportive of true prayer, in any format.

Secondly, Jewish day schools often do much better teaching texts and sources than they do teaching feelings. We excel in what I call “textus experientus”—experiencing and studying texts and sources. It matters little if these are primary or secondary sources. We have trained our students well to study, analyze, synthesize sources and readings and class lectures and notes. And schools do this well because we can quantify that knowledge and those skills through our tests and assignments and papers.

In teaching prayer, I have no aspirations (or at least not many) that my students will suddenly jump up and begin shuckling and davening as soon as they leave my class. Rather I see myself as helping probe the complicated issues of prayer with my students so that they will come to an understanding of the values of prayer. Eventually, most everyone in life reaches a situation where prayer is needed or desired: for some it may be soon in coming, for others it may take almost a lifetime. I hope that when my students reach that moment they will be able to use the values and knowledge that they have learned to help themselves navigate through it. I hope that they will have discovered the building blocks to make their prayer meaningful.

Jewish studies courses help prepare them for survival as members of the Jewish community after they leave our high school. Success in preparing our students for graduation requires engaging them intellectually in the very essence of our Jewish studies curricula. As such, the class discussions about the role of prayer may be as or even more important than the reciting of prayers in school. While we teach tefillah as a classroom subject, we teach it differently than other subjects; we aim for students to internalize its importance and meaning, and to develop their own understanding that they can apply to their lives.

When I teach students Talmud, I offer them an insight into the world of Jewish academies of yore, of intellectual battles in the batei midrash of yesterday. But I also hope that they may come away from my class with a sense of how this can be applied in their lives as Jews, of the vibrancy of halakhic process, of talmudic didactic and give and take, of the sense of scholarly jousting that is so primary to the continued living nature of our faith.

When I teach them tefillah, I feel the same. I know that unfortunately there are students who may never open a prayer book again. But I believe that a not insignificant number of students who have learnt and grappled with the issues of prayer during our course will be challenged to pursue the topic further, and that next time when they are in a synagogue, they will be able to think about why they say what the congregation is reciting; that they will recall the values of our class discussions and texts and use them as they develop their relationship with God and prayer. I believe that they will hear the echo of the Kuzari’s comment: “Prayer is for the soul what nourishment is for the body.”

I have at times wondered if we should include more experiential time in this prayer course, more reflective time about soul and spirituality and about students searching for their own inner voices. That sort of instruction requires both training and teachers who are comfortable guiding discussions about spirituality, spiritual and transformational moments. At a high school level, especially where academics are paramount, this may be difficult and somewhat challenging, though this door still beckons me.

The sainted Rabbi Chaim of Tzanz was purported to have said, “Before prayer, I pray that during prayer I will actually pray.” Our school could be said to have adjusted this to, “Before our students can pray, we engage them in the issues of prayer, so that they will learn to actually pray.”

Rabbi Dr. Moshe J. Yeres

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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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