Recently, I attended a conference workshop devoted to tefillah teaching in schools.  One of the explicated tensions concerned the intersection of learning the Matbeah Tefillah (the structure and words in the siddur), having a deep relationship with God, being fluent in tefillah concepts, and understanding how to accomplish this in a short span on a daily basis. The tension increases when thinking about the way tefillah happens in local synagogues where duration matters and good personal behavior may not manifest well as communal paradigms.

To further complicate teaching tefillah in schools, most teachers lack training and focus on compliance, and, as a result of those two elements, create an environment that feels less like a spiritual process and more like a police action. This often results in tefillah being a negative experience for students that hurts their relationships with teachers, Jewish learning and experience, Jewish communal members and, ultimately, the Divine. Unfortunately, in the Jewish day school world, this story is not new.  

In a previous article, I surfaced research findings gleaned from some of JEIC’s grantees.  Suggested highlights include: 

  • arranging small group instruction and shortening the duration of time saying the prayers

  • speaking directly about God and spiritual ideals

  • teaching the national voice of prayer (that which is contained in the siddur and other sources)

  • explaining the personal voice of prayer (creative individual expression), and

  • engaging students in projects and experiences that bring a holistic understanding of the purpose of tefillah.

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In thinking deeper about teaching tefillah, we also can consider three relationships that prayer solidifies for students: Relationship with God, Relationship with Halachah (the Nation), and Relationship with Self. Students have a variety of needs that change regularly.  Teaching tefillah to fulfill different aspects of human existence allows multiple pathways to connect to Judaism and to give students a feeling of belonging.  By conquering these three relationships, students open their minds and hearts to a world of faithful adherence to a complex construct that completes and lifts one’s soul. These relationships come out of explicit ideas in tefillah and should be part of students’ repertoire of prayer.

1. Relationship with God

The aspect most spoken about in teaching tefillah is the idea of connecting with God. This unfolds by directly speaking of our vision for the future, personal mission, hopes, need for help, and ability to trust. A Jew can pour out the deepest secrets and unburden the soul to the Creator of Reality and the Sustainer of Existence. Seeing the Author of Humanity as a friend, guide, and ruler allows each of us a place in the grand scheme that pushes away dangerous egotism. Liturgy describes the partnership in creating the world and continuing Creation. In order to be an active partner, we adhere to messages from the Divine and seek God’s influence. We study the essence of the Soul of Souls to draw close to our partnership and find the renewing awe and respect.

2. Relationship with Halachah (the Nation)

The Sanhedrin constructed the arrangement of tefillah texts, the idea of minyan, and the very notion of its daily timing. These nation-building devices created powerful group experiences, parallel experiences in different communities, and (mostly) the same parameters from place to place. Through Halachah, we speak the national voice (the siddur), build social esteem as the Holy Nation, and cement our national mission. Our tefillah remains a connector, as it was designed hundreds of years ago, spanning hundreds of places in the world. This is why the camaraderie and communal experience of tefillah can reduce loneliness. The experience of being a member of a community in group tefilah, both at the moment and extended to the community within which it lives, instructs us in more than just the interpretation of and connection to the national voice. 

3. Relationship with Self

The word lihitpallel/to pray stems from the biblical root word palal/to judge or think deeply. The verb format of the word, Hitpa’el, is reflexive, meaning the Hebrew word to pray literally is defined as  judging oneself. This shines a light on the inner value of tefillah as a source of self-investigation, inner calm, self-control, anger management, and reflective gratitude that diminishes desensitization and the need for immediate reward. The entire endeavor of exploring the inner space, the topic of much Kabbalistic and Jewish meditation work, goes back to biblical sources and stands tall in rabbinic literature. The ability to engage in the critical process of teshuvah (returning to God, repentance) relies on this relationship with self and the ability to self-criticize, to adopt new habits, and to repair decision making.  

When a child learns the Shma one could see the exercise through each of these three relationships.  

  1. Relationship with God: Shma states our direct relationship with the Divine as one Being.  

  2. Relationship with Halachah: Shma connects all of the Jewish people in a coherent mission and proscribes saying the Shma daily.  

  3. Relationship with Self: Shma allows an inner map to learn more about how deep one actually believes in the text.  

When tefillah embodies multiple levels of engagement, we equip children to use tefillah experiences for all of life’s varying precious moments -- from the ordinary to the extraordinary. To relegate tefillah to only one dimension robs it of its power, meaning, access, and purpose.   

We can do better than “doing” school tefillah as an act of compliance, a per diem requirement of boredom, or a battleground to showcase and cultivate pettiness. Let’s build a paradigm in Jewish day schools where every student internalizes tefillah, embraces its messages, and commits to a daily set of sacred relationships.