Improving Student Engagement in Community Rituals – Over Distance

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By Jody Passanisi

Imagine a seventh grade student leading their peers in the brachot for Havdalah– but imagine that this is taking place over Zoom- all the students’ peers and teachers muted– except for them. And imagine that this is taking place about six months into a pandemic in which this student hasn’t attended school in person that entire time. 

It’s enough to make some of us feel butterflies of anxiety as adults, but especially if you imagine yourself in the throes of adolescence with the weight of a pandemic and the gaze of the online meeting thrown in there. 

And yet, this is where we are. If you approached any one of our middle school students, faculty, or staff and asked them “what has been BETTER since the pandemic started” hands down they would likely say our Havdalah and Kabbalat Shabbat programs. 

And this begs the question of why? Why would it be better to come together for religious ritual through distance? Is there something about the medium that helps students to come out of their shells a bit more? Maybe it’s because that tension between adults and students during prayer is certainly minimized (thank you mute button!), or maybe it’s because in the confines of their own space and not surrounded by peers, students don’t experience the pressure that causes affectation and they are able to be more authentically themselves.

Or, maybe it’s because we asked them to participate in a new way. I’ve been working in Jewish day schools since 2005 and in Jewish programming long before that- and I will hands-down say that what we were doing before-  in terms of our community rituals and prayer at Hausner was pretty good. Our students, though in middle school and necessarily a bit prickly and dubious about these kinds of things, would participate for the most part, with enough respect and some participation to make our prayer services a strong part of our program. But we’ve always wanted to add a leadership component to services- and to hand off as much of that programming to the students as possible. As with much having to do with the middle school age-group- when they’ve planned something themselves, they are far more inclined to participate. 

But for whatever reason we didn’t get the student leadership piece off the ground until this year. And the results have been pretty extraordinary. Both the staff and students have been moved into a place where we needed to think creatively about how to come together and it’s pushed us to see things differently. 

It isn’t a coincidence that this age is probably one of the most difficult to connect to prayer – it’s an age where questioning of previously held beliefs is encouraged, where there is a feeling of everyone looking at you and the correlated deliberateness of action that comes with it, a lack of being able to inhibit one’s impulses, coupled with a desire to socialize at every given opportunity- well, can make for a challenge when planning tefilah experiences.

Camp seems to get it right, that’s for sure. But camp has the value of being firmly contextualized as camp and in the camp “experience” as a whole. And while we have created voice and choice in our tefilah experiences, we have not had participation to the extent we’ve seen it since COVID began.

Each advisory group in our middle school now takes the leadership reigns of planning that week’s Havdalah experience. This is how we ended up with the seventh grader lighting the havdalah candle and singing the blessings in front of the whole middle school.

Or maybe it started even earlier than that: during our sixth grade orientation, a student sang the shehecheyanu- unplanned- in front of her whole grade and their parents. Maybe that’s what set the tone for the year- that it was a year in which the connection to ritual and each other was more important than self-consciousness. 

While each advisory group of 10 prepares, students talk amongst themselves about what they will bring to the ritual experience. Will they find a relevant song or poem, or, perhaps, do some kind of tribute, as was the case last week when the advisory group honored the memory of the Notorious RBG.

And just today, we had an alumna student and current eighth grade student- cousins- present their work on mitigating COVID risk in prison communities, aligning with our school’s theme of Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof, Justice, Justice, Pursue and showing their peers that the prayer space is their for the taking. 

Students seem happy to come to our community events now- more of them seem to be turning on their cameras, and to watch the encouragement the students give each other after they’ve led or shared is wonderful to see.

Perhaps there is something we can take from this experience that can inform how we do prayer going forward- a way in which we can help to lower the self-consciousness and the affective filter so that students can take a risk and be their authentic selves in community. At a time in which so many things have been difficult, not ideal, life-threatening, and anxiety producing- it’s been a pleasure to experience something that is working.

Jody Passanisi is the Director of Middle School at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto.