What Can Schools and Synagogues Learn From the Successes of Tefilah Education at Camp?

What can schools and synagogues learn from the successes of tefilah education at camp? Or, How did camp help me become a praying Jew?

[ReFrame, an initiative of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, strengthens complementary schools, such as those housed in congregations, through the approach of experiential Jewish education. ReFrame asked a wide range of leaders in Jewish education to contribute to the initiative by addressing a series of questions related to the application of the experiential techniques which seem to serve so well in Jewish summer camps, Israel experiences, youth groups, and other popular settings associated with an experiential approach. The following article is one of the responses received. To learn more about ReFrame visit the website.]

Wordle - SGraffby Rabbi Sarah Graff

I believe I was asked to write this paper because of my work at Camp Ramah Darom for the first several summers of its existence. There I was privileged to work with the staff to try to create a new approach to tefilah at camp – one centered around tefilah activities and a new siddur that I was writing for camp. The siddur has illustrations, explanations, and places for campers and counselors to write in their own insights, inspirations, and prayers. I will indeed share some of my reflections on this approach and how I have endeavored to bring elements of it into the school and synagogue where I now serve as a Rabbi. However, if I am going to write about the successes of tefilah in the camp setting, I really must begin with my experiences as a camper at Ramah.

Part I – Keva

When I was 11, my parents put me on a bus with a handful of kids from our small Jewish community outside Chicago and sent me to spend 8 weeks at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. I was nervous and homesick and surely shed my share of tears going to sleep that first night. When I awoke the next morning, what did we do? We went to tefilot. Before even eating breakfast! I remember looking with awe at the knowledgeable kid who led us through the prayers that first day. And I remember finding comfort in singing together with all of these Jewish kids who would become my Eidah, my community for the summer, and many, my friends for life.

By the end of the summer, I knew the weekday shacharit service quite well. By the end of my second summer, I could lead it. The philosophy of the camp was: sing the words out loud and they will learn them. We sang all 3 paragraphs of the Shema out loud with trope. We sang the 2nd paragraph of the Aleinu (Al ken…) out loud, with great gusto. And we added on a new paragraph of the weekday Amidah to our communal singing every 2 or 3 days. It was a huge amount of recitation. As a prayer leader now, I tend to avoid such barrages of Hebrew words that so few people actually understand. Yet it gave me skills that have been invaluable in my life.

Before I turn to analysis of these experiences, I want to share one further memory from my camper days – the memory of Tefilah k’tzrif (prayer as a bunk) and even more importantly, Tefilah k’yachid, (prayer as an individual). When I was a camper, every Wednesday was Tefilah k’tzrif. We didn’t go down to the usual prayer space. Instead, two bunkmates would go get us siddurim, and we would pray in our bunk, or outside, or wherever we decided. Maybe we would even pray in our pajamas. In the privacy of our small, supportive group, less-knowledgeable girls would step forward to lead, less- knowledgeable counselors would find the courage to share something they found meaningful, and prayer became our own. For me, this feeling became even more powerful when one morning, our counselors declared, “Today, we’re each going to pray on our own.” We could take a siddur and go wherever we wanted in the area outside our cabin. No one told us what page to be on. No one told us what words we needed to say. We were trusted to pray on our own.

For me, these experiences ended up being life-changing. I didn’t know it at the time. But when, as a Junior in college, one morning I pulled a siddur off my shelf and davened for the first time, on my own (and in my pajamas), it was no doubt a testament to my years at camp. Twenty years later, I continue to daven on my own each morning, and it is the bedrock of my spiritual life. It teaches me to begin each day with gratitude. It is hard to think of anything more valuable.


How can we bring the successes I experienced with prayer at camp into school and synagogue settings?

What are the messages that camp communicated to me so powerfully?

1. Jews pray every day. Even the first morning of camp. Even the last morning of camp after everyone has been up all night. Even on a campout. It’s like eating and sleeping. It’s a vital part of who we are and what we do.


  • Have some prayer component every time school meets. It does not have to be an all-school service. It can be in the classroom. It can be individual.
  • Create family education programs encouraging bedtime and wake-up prayer rituals (Sh’ma before bed, Modeh Ani in the morning). Decorate pillow cases with Sh’ma on one side, Modeh Ani on the other side. Make artistic prayer cards/signs to hang beside one’s bed or on one’s nightstand.
  • Expose kids and families to daily minyan, if your community has one. Make it a class field trip or family homework assignment, perhaps as part of the bnai mitzvah preparation process. Incorporate minyan into teen/high school programs. Give teens a sense of being needed for the minyan, as well as it being an opportunity for them to pray.

2. We all need prayer role models. Often the most powerful role models are not rabbis, cantors, or teachers.


  • Expose kids to “regular” people who pray, who struggle with prayer, who come to shul regularly, or who don’t come to shul regularly, yet have a personal relationship with prayer.
  • Have Teen Madrichim or USYers play a role in kids’ services. Have them share things they find meaningful in tefilah. Have them sit with the kids and serve as role models in prayer (not just policemen).
  • Pair up kids and adults to pray 1-on-1. Encourage them to share insights into specific prayers, what they find meaningful, what they don’t find meaningful. This could be done on Shabbat morning or on a weekday, in the kids’ prayer space, in the main sanctuary, or let pairs choose any place they want to go, inside or outside. Ideally, have these “prayer chevrutot” meet multiple times.

3. You can pray on your own, and in small groups. You don’t need a rabbi, cantor, or teacher to lead you in prayer. Prayer belongs to you.


  • Following the Tefilah K’tzrif model, have kids pray some of the time in their classroom. Give each class a basic framework/matbe’a. Guide and nurture classroom teachers. Then trust them and their students to conduct their own tefilah, with freedom to make it their own.
  • Periodically, break up Jr. Congregation services into smaller prayer groups. (We call ours “mishpachot.”) Keep the same groups each time you do it. Empower Teen Madrichim, oldest kids, or any kids to lead the group in prayer.
  • Send everyone off to pray on their own (outside or in regular prayer space). You can also try praying with partners. Trust! Some may goof off, but for some, it could be life-changing.

4. If a prayer is important, sing the whole prayer out loud.

This is counter to my spiritual instincts. As a congregational rabbi and Jr. Congregation leader, I tend to want to give people silence, so as not to overwhelm them with Hebrew words, and to give them more time for their own personal prayers. It also just takes a long time to say every word out loud. But I fear that for kids, “continue silently” translates as “this part isn’t important.”

If we want Jews to know that the Sh’ma has 3 paragraphs, not just 1, and that the Amidah is more than Avot, G’vurot, and Kedusha, then we must actually say those parts out loud. I cannot count the number of times I have led a bar/bat mitzvah rehearsal and listened to the bar/bat mitzvah student lead a beautiful heicha kedusha for musaf, only to then ask me, when the quiet part starts, “how long should I wait?” I understand that they just want to know when to sing again. But it’s clear that many of us need to be taught what to do with the quiet part – how to continue with the traditional words, or how to continue with our own private prayers. We need practice and guidance in how to do it.


  • Sing all of the major prayers out loud together. Favor group singing over having the shaliach tzibur lead alone.
  • You can start small and add on. For example, start with only the first paragraph of the Amidah out loud, then add a paragraph every week.
  • Read or sing English out loud together. It doesn’t have to be all Hebrew. Praying the traditional words out loud in English also communicates that it’s important. Experiment with singing English words to the traditional Hebrew melodies.
  • Share personal prayers out loud. I know this is radical, and will feel uncomfortable for some. But if we want to encourage and validate praying from the heart, we need to model it. Choose points in the service where, periodically, people will share things they are thankful for, what they are praying for, etc. Make it part of your prayers, rather than something that seems like a diversion from traditional prayer. Perhaps take time at the end of the Amidah, or in the midst of Birchot Hashachar.

Part II – Kavanah

My years as a camper at Ramah Wisconsin gave me a wonderful dose of Keva – a sense of the importance of fixed prayer, a comfort and fluency with the traditional words. I realize though that part of why I took the position of Rosh Tefilah at the founding of Ramah Darom in 1997 was that I wanted to experiment with the Kavanah side of prayer at Camp Ramah. I wanted to teach kids what all these words mean, and how to make prayer their own, not just someone else’s words for them to recite.

My focus, as Rosh Tefilah, was on the counselors. Back when I was a counselor at Ramah Wisconsin, few people wanted to be on Va’ad Tefilah, the committee of counselors in each age division that would coordinate all the tefilot, find kids to read Torah and lead services, and make sure that services ran smoothly. Personally, I never wanted to be on Va’ad Tefilah. Instead, I wanted to be on the committee that planned Yom M’yuchad, all-day thematic programs with simulation games and experiential learning. And if not Yom M’yuchad, then I wanted to be on Va’ad Shabbat (planning Shabbat activities) or Va’ad Peulat Erev (planning fun evening activities). Spending my days begging kids to read Torah did not seem nearly as fun.

When we created Ramah Darom, I insisted that Va’ad Tefilah would be a programming committee. The counselors on this team would be asked to create activities to make tefilah come to life for their kids. Yes, they would also get kids to read Torah. But their main task was to brainstorm crazy ideas to make tefilah meaningful, memorable, and fun.

I modeled several tefilah activities during staff week. The first day we began with calisthenics. I asked people to take their pulse and count their breaths before and after, and used that as an introduction to Asher Yatzar and Elokai Neshama, starting the day with gratitude for our bodies and our breath. Over the next few days, we used some of our davening time for small group activities and discussions on specific blessings of Birchot Hashachar. The staff wrote and talked about why they were thankful to be Jewish (she’asani Yisrael), what qualities they had that they thought God would be proud of (she’asani b’tzalmo), and what kinds of freedom they enjoyed (she’asani ben/bat chorin). Another day, I asked them to put on a blindfold and go for a trust walk with a partner, to then reflect on hamechin mitz’adei gaver, God as the One who guides the steps of human beings, and their guiding roles as staff-members.

It was a paradigm shift for Ramah – to interrupt tefilah, in order to get into the tefilah. And the counselors embraced it. Many signed up to work on Va’ad Tefilah, and I got to spend my summer talking with college students about how to make tefilah meaningful for their campers (and for them). I am still amazed by some of the activities they thought up. Perhaps the most memorable for me was the day one of the counselors, who was also a DJ, used his black light for a tefilah experience. First, all the kids took part in painting pictures of Jerusalem, using laundry detergent on white posterboard. The next day, the whole aidah was asked to wear white shirts and come into a pitch black room after Barchu. After everyone crowded in, the counselor flipped on his black light and two things were all aglow – Jerusalem and our shirts. “Or chadash al Tzion ta’ir,” he declared, “Shine a new light on Zion, “V’nizkeh kulanu m’heirah l’oro,” “and some of that light can come from us,” he offered, as his own brilliant interpretation.

Another group of counselors got permission to have a tefilah option at the pool one morning. They wanted to use swimming metaphors for parts of the service. They had the kids do laps and sing Halleluyah (Psalm 150), symbolizing the warm-up function of Psukei D’zimra. They had the kids do Sh’ma floating on their backs, giving uv’shoch’b’cha, “when you lie down” a new meaning. For Mi Kamocha, they had everyone line up in the water, legs spread apart, making a tunnel, and kids got to take turns swimming through the tunnel, symbolic of coming through the narrow straits of Egypt and crossing the Red Sea. Once everyone had swum through, they got out of the water, sang and danced Mi Kamocha, highlighting its Song of the Sea context, and then stood on the deck for a more traditional Amidah.

I have recapped two of the more elaborate tefilah activities we did. Most days the activities took just a few minutes – a brief opportunity to write or draw, to discuss or act something out.

For the second summer of Ramah Darom, I created a new spiral-bound camp siddur, which the kids and counselors could actually write in and keep. I wanted us to be able to write our interpretations, illustrations, and personal prayers directly in the siddur, and to feel that they were an authentic part of Jewish prayer, not just little one-off activities that would be forgotten. I am hopeful that the siddur has helped kids retain some of the camp tefilah spirit and meaning, long past their summer/s at Ramah Darom. I know there are many kids (now twenty-somethings) who have held onto a whole collection of their camp siddurim from throughout the years.

As I reflect further on this activity approach we took to tefilah at Ramah Darom, I believe the largest impact was on the counselors. The counselor who came up with the black light Or Chadash experience was not someone with a strong Jewish background. He was a 17-year-old guy who came empowered to teach kids about tefilah. This is the tremendous power of the camp model. It makes 17-year-olds into Jewish educators. It relies on them to be role models and teachers, to be owners of Jewish tradition, and by and large, they step up to the challenge.

When my synagogue was re-envisioning its Shabbat morning education program for kids 10 years ago, we asked ourselves what wisdom we could bring from the successes of Jewish summer camps. My conclusion was a serious Teen Madrichim program. I advertised it among the teens as a prestigious leadership development and community service opportunity, and 16 high schoolers applied. To apply, they wrote essays about what was meaningful to them in Judaism, ideas they had to improve our Jr. Congregation, and what they appreciated in a favorite teacher. By late-summer we had our first cohort of Teen Madrichim and a pretty ambitious agenda for what they would do. They would teach our 3rd and 4th graders tefilah for an hour on Shabbat morning, spending part of the time working 1-on-1 with the kids on Hebrew reading and prayer skills, and the rest of the time they would lead camp-style tefilah activities and games, that they would plan on Tuesday nights, with my supervision. They would also play an important role in our 3rd-7th grade Jr. Congregation service – sitting among the kids, participating actively, sometimes doing skits or leading discussion in there, and partnering with a staff person in bringing new energy and dynamic leadership to the service.

I invested several hours each week in leading the weekly Madrichim training sessions, emailing back and forth with the madrichim who were writing the lesson plan for that week, and providing some supervision of the actual class they were teaching. I felt it was a worthwhile use of my time though, as I watched these 14-16-year-olds become owners of their Judaism. Two years before, many of them had been sitting in Jr. Congregation complaining they were bored. Now they were having heated discussions about the meaning of prayers and how they could bring them to life for “their kids.”

Applications – with a focus on Kavanah

  1. Integrate tefilah activities and discussions into the course of services. Use drama, music, physical activity, games. If it’s not Shabbat, use art, writing, videos…. Focus on prayer themes, choreography, structure, individual words. Use metaphors from sports, art, music. Get others to join you in brainstorming “crazy ideas” to open up tefilah in new ways. Adding activities does take more time. Choose some prayers to move through more quickly or omit, in order to make time for focusing on other prayers.
  2. Find ways to capture and preserve insights from tefilah activities/discussions. If you have tefilah that’s not on Shabbat, consider making your own siddur that allows kids to personalize it and add to it. If your tefilah is only on Shabbat, create artifacts (posters on the wall, bookmarks in the siddurim, journal entries written during the week) to preserve the messages/inspirations of the Shabbat activities.
  3. Create a Teen Madrichim program focused on tefilah – both to invigorate programming for younger students and, perhaps more importantly, to empower teens and change the way they think about their relationship with tefilah and Judaism.

Rabbi Sarah Graff grew up in Olympia Fields, IL, a small Jewish community outside of Chicago. She studied psychology and Jewish studies at Washington University in St. Louis, and then earned her Rabbinic ordination at The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. She has served as Rabbi of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, CA since 2001.