HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

A Week of Tefillah Moments

by Harry Pell Issue: Tefillah
TOPICS : Tefillah

There are two ways that a Monday morning tefillah can go in school, and for better or for worse, it can set the tone for the day, if not the entire week. The students can come prepared with tallit and tefillin, davening can start on time and with enthusiasm, the shlichei tzibbur can lead confidently, the Torah readings and aliyot having been given out with time for students to prepare, the students can be into it, and davening can feel right and good, and maybe even with the possibility of achieving kavannah.

Or: the students can come late and unprepared, davening gets going but weakly, the shlichei tzibur seem unsure of themselves, no one prepared the leyning, a majority of the students can seem disconnected, davening feels like a chore, or worse, and kavannah seems like a faraway dream. Truth be told, most of my Monday mornings are somewhere in between, usually closer to the former than the latter. But it takes only a few mornings when tefillah does not go well for me to question the entire enterprise of tefillah in school.

One recent Monday senior minyan most certainly embodied the second of these scenarios. The toranim never gave out the Torah readings, the kids trickled in after the bell, davening felt weak and distracted, and I remember leaving feeling frustrated, especially in the knowledge that I would be davening with the same group of seniors that Thursday. It is moments like these when I wonder, as confident as I usually am about the importance of the tefillah experience for our students, is it really worth it? That was Monday.

On Sunday, an email had gone out to our teachers and alumni that one of our alums, a former student of mine, had lost his father. The circumstances were even sadder: the alum was an only child, he had lost his father to pneumonia, and his mother had also become ill and was still recovering. He had been the only member of his family at his father’s funeral, and he was now sitting shivah essentially alone as his mother recovered upstairs. To give his mother time and space to recover, they had even declared it a closed shivah, with the exception of the minyanim.

When I arrived for Ma’ariv, I wasn’t sure what to expect; the house was quiet and I wondered if they would even get a minyan. Very quickly, though, the living room filled up with fellow alumni who had come to comfort their classmate. When my former student led Ma’ariv, he did so from a place of loss, but also from a place of comfort and pride. Moreover, his classmates had used the occasion of the minyan to surround him with their love and support as they joined him in prayer. That was Tuesday.

Wednesday night was the school’s annual poker night fundraiser, and not being much of a card player, I spent the night schmoozing with parents. One parent, himself a day school alum and a significant supporter of the school’s Judaic programming, shocked me when he said, “Rabbi, you would have hated me in high school!” Why? I asked. “Because I was the kid in minyan every day with my tefillin bunched up at my wrist like I couldn’t care.” Hate is a bit of a strong word, but I certainly recognized the type. And yet now he was not only sending his kids to day school but funding initiatives to enrich Jewish life and tefillah. That was Wednesday.

Thursday morning, I was back with the seniors; things were much better than Monday, but still far from perfect. Yet as I looked around the minyan, I couldn’t help but reflect on the moments I had had since our tefillah on Monday. Would these students someday use tefillah to rally around a friend in a time of need? Would they have to put their tefillah skills to use at a shivah minyan of a loved one? Would one of the jokers who gives me a hard time about wearing tefillin properly eventually come to embrace tefillah and want to make sure others have the benefit of it as well?

I can’t say for sure, and only time will tell, but I certainly left tefillah on Thursday with a far more positive outlook than I had had just a few days earlier. As it says in Yirmiyahu: Yeish tikvah le-acharitekh—There is hope for the future!

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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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