Opening Teens’ Minds to Prayer

How NCSY and Legacy 613 are Helping Infuse Prayer with Power and Meaning

By Tova Ross

Before teens can effectively talk to God, tefilla needs to talk to them.

Tefilla is not only one of the core parts of Judaism, but of any solid yeshiva education, sometimes performed up to three times per day at school. Yet few schools devote any real time to educating students about its essential elements: the meaning behind the words, the awesomely transformative power prayer holds to connect with Hashem, and the ability to plead for our basic needs and desires and be thankful for all that we have. Amid Tanach, Talmud and Jewish history, all too often, tefilla gets lost in the array of subjects young Jewish men and women are mandated with learning – yet tefilla is a continuing mainstay in the life of any observant Jew.

Debbie Stone, Associate Director of Education for NCSY, noticed this egregious gap in the yeshiva educational system while implementing the educational curriculum for NCSY’s The Jerusalem Journey (TJJ) summer program in Israel in 2013.

“While on the trip, I saw that there was a real need for in-depth tefilla education for teens,” she explained. “I returned from TJJ inspired to draft a curriculum for tefilla education to complete the educational curriculum I had previously written. My colleague Rabbi Ari Rockoff suggested I connect with Rabbi Zev Schostak, who was also interested in re-igniting a renaissance of tefilla education.”

Rabbi Schostak was at the helm of launching the Legacy 613 Tefilla Foundation Project, a foundation from the estate of Rabbi Nathaniel and Shirley Pollack, which aims to help improve the state of tefilla education and practice in the Jewish community. Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz, a well-known visionary in the field of Jewish education who has influenced hundreds of students at Ramaz and Ma’ayanot High Schools, was hired as director of education for the foundation.

“I believe that the time has finally come for tefilla to be a field of education in its own right just like any other aspect of limmudei kodesh, with its own research, its own pedagogy and its own “curriculum” experts,” said Rabbi Goldmintz. “Jewish education became extraordinarily professional during the past decades when it came to teaching texts; we are finally coming around to realizing that we need to spend more time teaching souls as well.”

“Most practicing Jews who pray three times a day don’t really know the deeper insight into the words they’re saying,” commented Rabbi Schostak. “It’s no surprise when you think about it, because their teachers never taught them about tefilla, who themselves never learned about it. Today’s teachers simply don’t have a framework for how to talk about God, and how to connect with Him, with their students, yet tefilla is one of the most important things we do as Jews. Legacy 613 hopes to stem this tide of ignorance and infuse today’s teachers with proven methodology to injecting meaning into prayer.”

Together, Legacy 613 and NCSY formed a network of six yeshiva high schools to participate in a pilot initiative to pioneer a revolutionary way of teaching tefilla to the next generation. Six schools across the Orthodox demographic spectrum (co-ed and separate, West Coast and East Coast) are participating in this pilot program: North Shore Hebrew Academy High School, the Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls, Yeshiva University High School for Boys/MTA, Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, Fuchs Mizrachi School in Cleveland, and Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Philadelphia. In February 2015, administrators from these schools participated in an introductory webinar to broach this topic.

“We engaged in an open and frank dialogue about the issues the schools were facing with regards to tefilla among their students,” said Stone. “Everyone spoke with no reservations or judgment, and it was refreshing to hear such honesty. It helped us narrow down the issues – how can we make tefillah more meaningful? How can students feel more empowered in their prayers? How can teachers be more equipped to teach about God?”

A follow-up conference among the schools took place in June, where educators discussed innovative ways for improving the way they teach tefilla to their students, learning strategies and best practices from NCSY educators such as Stone and Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin, Director of Education for NCSY. Each attendee received a copy of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur, which is meant for high schools students and adults who want to better understand the prayers they say each day and features commentary by Rabbi Goldmintz.

As a participant, each school was set to receive a stipend from Legacy 613 to pilot tefilla initiatives in their school after drafting a proposal describing their visions. Many of the schools’ proposals focused on emboldening the students with as much choice as possible to flex their own tefilla-minded muscles. By doing so, administrators believe students will be more likely to take ownership of their tefilla and find more personal meaning and relevance in making prayer a regular part of their daily lives, even long after they graduate high school.

Students can choose from different styles of minyanim to attend; schools are implementing personalize prayers where students write about what they wish to daven for and blog about their experiences; schools are conducting mini yamei iyun and immersive programming about connecting to God; field trips to davening different environments, like a beachside setting to appreciate the natural beauty of this world; and a student-led tefillah committee to brainstorm ideas to inspire their peers in their davening, allowing for a genuine sense of creative leadership.

With guidance from Stone and Rabbi Goldmintz, the schools began implementing their ideas efforts this past September at the start of the 2016-2017 academic year. Designated educators who direct these initiatives participate in monthly webinars with NCSY, where they report on their progress, share ideas and resources they’ve learned or picked up along the way, and brainstorm.

“While the schools’ ideas are unique, the common theme is to empower the teens to lead the way,” explained Rabbi Shragi Gross, who, along with Rabbi Rockoff and Stone, is making personal visits to the schools throughout the year to witness the initiatives up close.

As educators continue to implement their respective ideas, Legacy 613 and NCSY hope to pinpoint a general model curriculum that might be formed for yeshiva high schools everywhere.

“Davening is challenging for adults, let alone children,” shared Avery Joel, Principal of Fuchs Mizrachi. “Being able to not only raise awareness of the challenge of davening and spirituality in general, but proactively address it has been great for our students. The time, resources, and expertise dedicated by the OU towards this important issue has enabled our students to explore their relationship with Hashem in more personalized and potentially more meaningful ways like song, art, meditation, or philosophical discussion.”

“Being a part of the coalition has been enriching and invigorating,” said Mrs. Elisheva Kaminetsky, Director of Religious Guidance at SKA. “Sharing ideas with educators from around the country and having the support from leading experts in the field of tefilla education has helped our school continue to develop rich and engaging tefilla initiatives. Developing a connection to tefilla is personal, but with SKA’s partnership with OU/Legacy developing tefilla curriculum and programs is no longer lonely.”