HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Tefillah as a Leadership Opportunity

by Yonatan Rosner Issue: Tefillah

Studies show that giving students ownership over tefillah is one of the most effective ways for them to find meaning and develop engagement. Rosner describes an initiative for students to learn leadership skills through tefillah.

The last few years in education have brought much talk about “21st century skills” and our need to adjust to these changes. Educators are advised to include these skills in the curriculum. Critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and communication, curiosity and imagination, agility and adaptability are only some of the skills our students are expected to acquire, and we are expected to impart.

Students do not need merely knowledge but also “literacy,” the ability to apply their learning to meet real-world challenges. Whether scheduled daily, weekly or monthly, tefillah offers schools constant opportunities to develop 21st century skills within a Jewish context. However, in order to inspire our youth to engage in tefillah and to change their perspective about this valuable practice, we must empower them to take ownership over it and to make it relevant and real.

One way we can achieve this change is by addressing tefillah as a leadership opportunity. To that end, the New Community Jewish High School in LA established the Tefillah Kehillah Institute five years ago. From year to year, students who are motivated to make a difference are chosen to learn about Jewish texts and tefillah, acquire and practice leadership skills, and develop and utilize a variety of modalities to create experiential and experimental tefillot for their community.

Through TKI, tefillah has become the source of leading and learning. From the perspective of the students, they are learning for the purpose of leading. From the educator’s perspective, they are leading for the purpose of learning. The community benefits from the meaningful student-led tefillot which expand upon the more traditional and faculty-led tefillot in the school.

The tefillah service that these student leaders provide enriches their learning experience and strengthens the community as a whole. By affording them the opportunity and responsibility to lead Kabbalat Shabbat in the nearby Jewish Home for the Aging or to inspire younger students at another day school to engage in Jewish spirituality, we enable the students not only to acquire the important skill of practical application of their studies but to become actively contributing community members.

In order to truly involve students in this process and allow them to grow as leaders, we give them guided freedom and allow them to make mistakes. This is a core principle of the TKI, which is based on a constructivist and multi-modal approach. Instead of having the students rely on our (sometimes unsuccessful) solutions to tefillah and accept them as truth, we expose them to data and primary sources and let them loose to create their own paradigms of Jewish prayer.

Everything our students know and feel towards tefillah changes once they are provided with the complex task of creating an experiential and experimental tefillah session for their classmates, the entire student body and the greater community. In this project-based learning environment, the students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to this real-pragmatic challenge, which inspires them to obtain deeper knowledge about tefillah and acquire the necessary skills to solve the problem at hand.

The process begins by presenting the framework of a given tefillah session including the date, length and the community members who will partake in the experience. Next, the students create, perform and reflect on their tefillah session through a cycle of (brain)storming, forming, norming, performing and growing through self-reflection. In each stage, the students develop and practice core 21st century leadership skills which are at the heart of the program.

Storming

God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” “Free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt.” (Exodus 3:4-10)

Our texts teach us that every leadership role begins with a call to lead and the recognition of that calling by the leader himself/herself. In the storming stage, the students start to explore their audience in order to find the balance between the needs and wants of this community. The class discusses the theme they would like to focus on and the message they might want to convey. Students develop their communication skills; they learn how to listen actively, to build upon the ideas of their peers and to articulate their own thoughts.

Forming

“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt? What shall I say to them?” “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” (Exodus 3:11-14)

Leaders must become aware of their own merits but also recognize what they still need to learn. This is the time to learn for the purpose of leading. In the forming stage, the students develop a variety of tefillah components to allow them to convey their message and create a spiritual experience for the community. In order to do so, the students recognize that they must first deepen their knowledge and improve their leadership skills. The task invites exploration of Jewish texts relevant to the theme and message, to be introduced by the teacher and explored by the entire class.

Then the students often divide into smaller groups. Each group addresses a different aspect of the themes that the texts generate and creates a component relevant to the needs and wants of the community. This process provokes the students’ curiosity and motivates them to claim ownership over their own learning process. Their awareness extends outward from themselves to the others they wish to lead. 

Norming

“I have never been a man of words… Make someone else Your agent!” “There is your brother Aaron…he shall speak for you to the people.” (Exodus 4:1-16)

A true leader does not need to know everything. She surrounds herself with resourceful and skillful advisors who help her make the right decisions. It is the process of leading others while learning from those you lead. Now that the students have a good idea about each component that they would like to utilize, they reach out beyond the TKI group to seek additional students and professionals with whom to collaborate.

Involving others in creating a tefillah not only guarantees that the session will be relevant to the majority of the community, but also allows the student leaders to introduce tefillah through a variety of modalities. Using meditation or yoga techniques to create a state of mindfulness, art and visuals to broaden or change people’s perspectives, and using music to encourage participation are some examples of modes to enrich and enhance the tefillah experience. Given that the student leaders are not always masters of such techniques, guest speakers, artists, musicians, faculty members or even proficient students can lead workshops for the TKI group and partake in the leading of the session for the community.

By the end of this stage, the groups assemble all their different ideas and components into one cohesive session outline. The students must be flexible as they adapt all the pieces into one coherent whole.

Performing

Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh: “Thus says YHVH, the God of Israel: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.” (Exodus 5:1)

The passionate leader attracts others. His rhetorical skills and gravitas commands attention and respect. The performance stage is the peak of the leadership experience. It is the process of leading others while learning from one’s own leadership. In order for the students to successfully facilitate their tefillah session, they must learn how to speak in front of an audience with voice and presence; to become aware and take advantage of their body, voice and pace; to lead a discussion while listening carefully to the responses; to manage time and make decisions, and to adjust their plans in real time. This is an ongoing process that requires repeated trials and constant support as these young leaders gain confidence and develop their voice. In our experience, the student body and the community respond much better when led by these student leaders, even when their expertise does not match those of veteran educators.

Reflection and Growing

“Why did You send me?” “You shall know that I, YHVH, am your God.” (Exodus 5:22-6:7)

The leadership experience is not complete without the personal and professional growth achieved by individual and group reflection. Students realize how much their leading experience benefited their learning. They reflect upon their contributions to the creation and execution of the tefillah session; they provide positive reinforcement and constructive criticism. Students discuss their session’s impact on the community and discuss ways that the experience was valuable. The process ends with students sharing and discussing their insights within the classroom setting with the goal of supporting the growth of the group of leaders as a whole.

Currently, the Tefillah Kehillah Institute includes over 30 trained student leaders in grades 10-12, a figure which constitutes approximately 10 percent of our entire student body. Following Jethro’s advice to Moses, we have sought out from among all the people “capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain” (Exodus 18:21) and set these over New Community Jewish High School as “chiefs of tens” to help our next generation enter the 21st century though the realm of tefillah and leadership. It is my hope that you will consider and appropriate this advice as well and “make it easier for yourself by letting them [your students] share the burden with you” (Exodus 18:22).

Yonatan Rosner

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Tefillah

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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