HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

What We Can Learn from Prayer in Christian Schools

by Sarah Levy Issue: Tefillah
TOPICS : Tefillah

Despite obvious differences, there’s much that Jewish schools can learn from observation of their Christian counterparts, which have been wrestling with some of the same challenges for decades.

In her book Prayer First, Mary Kathleen Glavich offers teachers tips, explanations, and samples of how to lead successful and influential prayer in their classrooms. Galvich makes the case for prayer in the Catholic school stating, “If we do not teach our Catholic youth to pray, who will? Sadly, the only time some students pray is in school. Let’s give them good experiences of prayer that whet their appetite for it.”

Glavich’s words resonate within the Jewish day school world as well. After experiencing various challenges with school tefillah over the last few years in a Jewish day school setting, I became convinced that we as Jewish day school educators would be remiss not learn a thing or two (or seven) from our colleagues in Christian schools. Here are a few of those lessons that Jewish day schools can learn from their parochial school counterparts.

Faculty should be involved, modeling prayer for the students.

Though we all hope that what we teach our students while they are at a Jewish day school is supplemented and enforced at home, we cannot be sure that is the case with each of our students. For many students, the faculty members at the school become their Jewish role models, and we have an obligation to model positive prayer for them.

As Glavich states, “We learn to pray by praying. When the students and personnel pray, both alone and together, the atmosphere in the school is then one of prayer, and those who work in the school are giving witness as people of prayer.” She adds, “By showing our students how to pray, we show them a way to make life meaningful and full of promise.” The key here seems to be the element of praying “together” and “showing” the students how to pray. Students cannot simply be handed siddurim and told to pray; the faculty should be actively involved, modeling what to do. If tefillah is mandatory for students, it should also be required for teachers, encouraging prayer to be a communal event for everyone.

Students build relationships with each other through prayers.

Focusing on the Christian community, Peter Chen’s dissertation, A Study of the Effects of Prayer on the Believer’s Relationships with God, Self, and Others, determines a positive correlation between prayer and one’s relationship with others. Not only does regular prayer foster and strengthen a relationship with God and with religion, but it strengthens healthy relationships among people and with oneself.

Many of our schools emphasize a value on community and respect for each other. According to Chen, prayer can be a mechanism to accomplish these goals by bringing our students together in tefillah. Within the larger community, smaller groups could be formed for prayer, life events can be recognized, and personal prayers can have more meaning with the community’s voice behind them. Minyan can, and should, be a time for students to get to know one another in a non-academic setting, building relationships not only with God, but with each other.

Prayer can help prevent our students from turning to other, dangerous outlets.

According to John Swomley (“The ‘Power’ of Prayer” in The Humanist), Catholic students who attend a Catholic school and are religiously involved in prayer are less likely to drink, partake in illegal drug usage, or shoplift than Catholic teens at public schools. Through prayer, students can feel connected to greater purpose, emphasizing their connection to God and to others, and giving them options when in stressful situations.

Swomley’s study showed that being part of a religion is not enough to prevent self-destructive behavior; rather, engaging in prayer was what made the difference. Tefillah, then, can be presented to students in this manner. Instead of only an obligation to complete each day, tefillah should be viewed as an essential part of the day that involves both giving and taking through establishing a relationship. When students feel as if their prayers matter, and they are not praying in vain, they are more likely to view prayer as a viable option when they feel stressed or otherwise in need. Prayer is not just about service to God. Through cultivating their relationship with God, those who engage in tefillah can get something in return, including the avoidance of self-destructive behavior.

Students should be shown variety and option for prayer.

While many of our schools recognize the value of traditional prayer options (mechitzah davening, traditional egalitarian prayers), not all students find a connection to these options, and those who do now may not forever. Gravich states, “It’s important to teach them a variety of prayer forms, so that later when their prayer tastes change, they are equipped to pray in a form that better meets their needs.” By teaching students that there are a variety of ways to pray, we teach them that prayer (and their relationship with God) is flexible and can adjust to their needs.

Although strong traditional tefillah skills like leading a service and reading Torah may be valued by some, these skills may not always help students to find a connection and deal with their different needs at different times. We should, therefore, provide students with a variety of options for tefillah that can adapt to their needs and preferences. Alternative options such as meditation, art minyan, and in-depth study on specific prayers should be offered, allowing students to explore various ways of connecting to the idea of prayer and God without feeling as if traditional options are their only options.

Prayer must become a habit.

Regardless of whether students choose a traditional mode of prayer or an alternative option, we should help students to make some form of prayer part of their regular routine. Speaking about Catholic education in “The Importance of Prayer,” Deacon Doug McManaman says, “The most important thing is to acquire the habit of prayer. It has to become a habit.” If we engrain prayer into the students’ schedules now, it is more likely to become a lasting part of their lives. Students should be encouraged to work on their shaliach tzibur skills, aiming to be able to lead a service of their own one day. By doing so, they will not always have to rely on finding a prayer community that fits their needs as they will be equipped to make their own.

Additionally, every school’s schedule is packed with trying to balance the various needs and priorities of the school day. In order to engrain prayer into the students’ lives and create a habit of it, tefillah as a priority should be reflected in that schedule. Davening time should not be shortened or eliminated because of a special assembly or early dismissal; rather, it should be lengthened when a day such as Rosh Chodesh requires a longer service. If we want to encourage students to make prayer a serious part of their lives, we need to commit to making prayer a serious part of the school’s schedule.

Students can become better citizens of the world through prayer.

Prayer may focus on one’s relationship to God, but it teaches much more. According to the Catholic News Agency, Bishop Robert W. Finn emphasizes that Catholic schools are “about the formation of men and women in all aspects of life and living.” He stresses that through prayer in schools, students come to know and appreciate God’s presence, eventually leading to their becoming better people in society. Glavich adds that through prayer in school, “We help them realize that there is someone beyond us who is all-powerful, all-wise, all-just, and all-good, someone who makes sense of the universe. Then our students are more equipped to become good citizens of earth and heaven.”

Prayer teaches students to be humble in recognizing power above them. It encourages students to think about each other through communal prayers. It gives them a moment each day to focus on those less fortunate, all helping them to become better citizens of the greater world. Additionally, minyan can be a wonderful opportunity for our students to develop leadership skills. Students can be given responsibilities in the individual prayer communities and taught that if they do not uphold their responsibilities, they will be letting down the entire community. Students should be encouraged to lead minyanim and personalize the service to reflect their needs and community while still serving the purpose of the minyan as a whole.

Prayer cannot be limited to morning minyan.

Many of our schools build morning minyan into the school schedules, but to be truly beneficial and powerful, prayer has to go beyond that slotted time. Beth Nolen, in her article “Prayer Strategies for Christian Schools,” underscores the need to teach students that prayer is in response to a need, not merely as an obligation tied to time. She discusses the opportunities for prayer such as at times of sharing good news, when fights have passed, and when a fellow student faces an illness. Nolen feels these are all appropriate times for prayer “because there is a need for students to stop and become aware of the presence of God within them and who God is calling them to be.”

Judaism is filled with opportunities for prayer. Blessings before and after eating, after exiting the restroom, upon experiencing something for the first time, and more are already provided for us, and there is no limit to the prayers that the students could write for themselves. In order to be a truly transformative experience, the school should be saturated with prayer. The cafeteria should have Birkat HaMazon prominently displayed. Asher Yatzar can be posted outside of the bathroom. The blessing for seeing a rainbow can hang near a window. The opening of the school year should include reciting of the Shehechiyanu. Through constant infusion of prayer into students’ daily lives, they will gradually work to cultivate a relationship with God beyond morning minyan.

Glavich explains, “A school is not Catholic just because it has religious classes. That would make it little different from the public school down the street. No, the whole school should be saturated with a sense of the sacred.” Prayer is one of the many aspects that allow a Jewish day school to differentiate itself from other educational institutions and, hence, should play a vital role in the school. Glavich adds, “Prayer is as essential to the spiritual life as breathing is to physical life.” As such, it should play an essential role in our schools, reaching beyond morning minyan, becoming a habit for our students, and helping to shape them into the people we know they can be.

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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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