Tips for Tefilah in the In-Person Day School Setting
By Rabbi Yael Buechler
Once the governor gave the green-light to reopen schools in New York, the physical plans were already prepared – we knew exactly how we would space-out desks in each classroom and how we would reconfigure the nurse’s office to include an isolation area. But the spiritual plans, on the other hand, were not as easy to design in a reopening manual. There was no blueprint for rebuilding tefilah in-person.
How could we return to campus and have little or no singing? At least when we were remote we could sing – albeit not together at once on the Zoom, but we could still sing! We did not want the pandemic to take away from the love for tefilah and Jewish music that we have inculcated at the Leffell Lower School.
What began as a Zoom experiment with tefilah has turned into a beautiful way for students to start their mornings as a kehilah and to set the tone for each day on campus. This Zoom tefilah takes place as an option for certain classes when at the same time other classes are working individually with teachers on Hebrew recitation of the tefilot as well as delving into deeper understandings of the tefilot. Our on-campus Zoom tefilah has also enabled our permanently remote learners and any students who are out sick for a few days to start each morning with many of our classes.
Here are 5 tips (with video examples) for how to successfully have tefilah on Zoom in an in-person day school setting or make your in-person day school small group tefilah experience more engaging.
1) Movement: Start and conclude each tefilah with a brief dance which requires students to stand up next to their desks. This gets their energy flowing and is a great way to engage all students and faculty (both on campus and remote). Songs we dance to include Mah Rabu by Rabbi Josh Warshawsky (dance here), Aish by Yaakov Shwekey (dance here), or Amen by Leora (dance here). One of our remote families created hand-motions for Kol HaNeshama by Yaakov Shwekey and then taught the dance to the entire school.
Tip: Keep the dances as simple as possible with a focus on upper-body hand motions which are easier to teach on Zoom. It’s also helpful for the person leading the dance to share audio from their own device so there is not a delay between the sound and the hand motions. Tefilah stretches are great as well!
2) Engage with Participants through Chat and Discussion: Use the chat function before and after several tefilot (or have in-person conversations) to foster discussion and check for understanding. This enables remote learners and students on campus to share their ideas connected to a tefilah. For example, students can share what they are thankful for while our Minister of Music, Mr. Amichai Margolis, plays Modeh Ani on the guitar (students do not sing and only use the “voices of their hearts.”) Before Baruch Sheamar, we ask students to send us a chat with animal pose ideas as Baruch Shemar mentions the creation of the world. Students then make the animal move/noise of the animal chosen before the tefilah and then another animal is selected upon the conclusion of this tefilah.
Tip: Refer to who gave which answers so that the chat feels more like a real conversation. For example, “2C, that was an amazing suggestion to act like sloths!” “5A, when you say Aardvarks, can you demonstrate for all of us what you mean?” Ask for a thumbs up if students can hear you, tap their shoulders if they led kiddush over Shabbat, or wave to the Zoom if they greeted someone today.
3) Co-Host: If you will be sharing slides or sharing a screen for any portion of tefilah, it is important to have a co-host do the sharing itself. Sharing a screen and engaging with participants at the same time is very tough to do on Zoom because the sharing itself blocks other portions of your Zoom screen. If someone else is sharing a screen, you are more able to see what classes are doing and compliment classes on their hand motions or overall engagement.
Tip: Encourage your co-host to chime in with ideas or comments every so often as it is helpful to have multiple voices heard throughout the experience of the tefilah.
4) Frequent Spotlighting: Generously use the Zoom Spotlighting feature throughout tefilah. Whenever our Minister of Music is singing and playing tefilot on his guitar, we encourage students to clap or do hand-motions for the tefilot. Classes benefit from reminders of proper spotlighting etiquette, including appropriate clapping, hand motions in sync with the prayer, as well as socially-distant dancing.
Tip: Spend about half of the tefilah spotlighting and half using slides. The slides are helpful for seeing the words of the tefilot (students also have siddurim in front of them) but the spotlighting is even more helpful in creating an engaging and exciting experience for students.
5) Surprises: Include tefilah surprises every so often! Below are a few examples of surprises we have included at least once a week in our Zoom tefilah.
Biblical Guests: When we had a “Yom Noach” (students came to school in tie-dye and animal print in honor of the Torah portion), we surprised students by a visit from Noach as well as a visit from one of Noach’s sons (who had real birds on his shoulders for the Zoom). I’ve never seen a bird get so close to the screen before!
Local Clergy: We had local clergy blow shofar during the month of Elul which was a great way to keep students connected with their rabbis and cantors. We look forward to welcoming clergy members who are currently serving in the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force in an upcoming tefilah for Veterans Day.
Smachot (Celebrations): When one of our faculty members got engaged, we had surprise dancing to celebrate this simcha at the end of our Zoom tefilah.
Torah: Before we read Parashat Bereshit, we had a chance to Zoom with a Torah to see the exact spot where the Torah begins – these were front row seats to Torah reading!
Tip: Surprises on Zoom tefilah enable you to utilize parents, grandparents, local clergy, and guests from across the country to join your tefilah.
While this Zoom/in-person tefilah hybrid does not replace the energy of being in a room with everyone singing and fully participating as we experienced in pre-pandemic times, we are thrilled at how this tefilah has enabled students to still hear the tunes of our tefilot, better understand our liturgy, and continue to grow their appreciation for Jewish music.
My hope is that these tools will help other institutions make their tefilah experiences more engaging for learners. If you would like to join The Leffell School for a daily tefilah, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I would be happy to arrange a Zoom visit.
Rabbi Yael Buechler is the Lower School Rabbi at The Leffell School in Westchester. Rabbi Buechler (@midrashmanicures) is the founder of MidrashManicures.com and recently designed a 2020 Hanukkah Card with a cartoonist from The New Yorker.