How to Put Tefilah Back on Schools’ Agenda

DSC_9556By Rabbi Zvi Hirschfield and Dr. Susan Wall

Everyone agrees that tefilah is a real challenge in Day Schools, particularly beginning in the upper elementary school grades. Teachers, students and parents attest to the lack of success: most teachers prefer not to be involved, some parents often schedule appointments for their children during the time set aside for prayer, and too many students misbehave or zone out. Instead of confronting the challenge, some high schools have even decided to drop traditional, formal tefilah altogether.

To this end, at the beginning of the summer, the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators brought together 17 successful Day School educators, rabbis and administrators to think more deeply about this critical area. This six-day intensive symposium, entitled Aleinu Le’shabeach, drew a diverse group from Community, Orthodox and Conservative schools spanning grades K-12.

There were many takeaways from this program. However, we want to focus on what we saw as the central and most significant finding: the need to develop and professionalize a field of tefilah education. All the rest is commentary.

What does it mean to have a professional field?

  1. First and foremost, it means that teachers are trained. We train and hire teachers for Hebrew, Bible and Rabbinics – but not for tefilah. Our Aleinu Leshabe’ach participants were far from representative of most who lead tefilah in day schools; each participant brought a strong background in prayer knowledge and skills coupled with personal charisma and creativity. Nevertheless, almost all admitted to having no formal training in this area. A tefilah facilitator needs a wide range of knowledge and skills, and a broad toolkit of experiential education. Morever, to lead, one needs to be connected to tefilah and to be inspired by it.
  2. Tefilah educators need colleagues from diverse backgrounds. The diversity within Aleinu Leshabe’ach allowed our participants to bring a range of perspectives, which stimulated new thinking, challenged old ideas, and encouraged creativity.
  3. Professional fields sponsor conferences and gatherings to bring people together to engender new ideas, build new relationships, and foster advocacy to keep the field fresh and cutting edge.
  4. We need a repository of best practices. What songs, stories, films, themes can relate to and enhance the tefilah experience that we want our students to have? What are ways in which we can teach our students to pray and prepare them for the experience on a daily basis? A website with lists is insufficient. A number of curricula are on the Internet for free, yet it is the training that accompanies those materials that makes the difference.
  5. A professional field has clearly articulated goals. These goals will differ from school to school, but there needs to be a well-thought out process for arriving at those goals – and what it would take to achieve them.
  6. All professional areas within our day schools assess student achievement. That needs to be true for both the cognitive and affective areas of tefilah education. (See our article in the upcoming issue of RAVSAK’s HaYidiyon)
  7. There is a need for a recognized body of literature deemed essential for literacy in the field. Those who oversee tefilah education need to be familiar with how one applies what we know about child development, social-emotional learning, etc. to tefilah education and the decisions we make.
  8. Serious research needs to be undertaken. While synagogue attendance is down, wouldn’t it be interesting to learn why the people who do come to pray, come – beyond a halachic imperative? Are there similar characteristics in their development that led them to become daveners? Is there a formula we need to follow? What happens with our day school graduates vis-a-vis tefilah – in the long run? Opening up these questions is a scary proposition, but it needs to happen.
  9. A professional field has shared terminology. What do we mean by tefilah education, by keva and kavannah, by spirituality, emotional dispositions, meaning-making, etc. We can only successfully share with one another once we are clear about the terminology we use.

All of the above constitutes a tall order, but we need to get started. Some schools devote as much, if not more time to tefilah education than any other area of the curriculum, if one includes services, blessings one recites throughout the day, and tefilla learning that takes place in a classroom. What currently exists is far from a field. We, at Pardes, together with a few theorists and a group of amazing educators, have taken the first steps toward creating this field. We came away inspired by our program to engage this challenge and bring the best of what we know about education to this field.

Rabbi Zvi Hirschfield and Dr. Susan Wall are faculty members of the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators.