Having been involved in Jewish education for many years as both a student and a teacher, I have often felt perturbed by the attempts to professionalize and academize the field. Rubrics, curricula, assessments, and so on were vigorously studied with the hope of full implementation. In a field like Jewish studies, educators, schools, and parents often wonder: what is success? When does a parent or a school know that they have done well with the Jewish education they provide to children? I would strongly argue that academic measures are the last place to look.
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.
It’s been almost 20 years since I sat in a Lookstein professional development seminar in Israel with a diverse group of Jewish day school colleagues, sharing about our common woes. Dress code violations and tefillah seem to transcend school denomination, size and family wealth. While dress code occupies an interesting place in school policy discussion, tefillah gets a lot of attention in the wider Jewish day school world. In the last few years, a wide range of inspired teachers have reached out to JEIC about eight different tefillah programs, and at least three other new programs have been published since 2016. These numbers do not even include the countless other schools attempting to create a regular and effective tefillah program that students will embrace.
Ironically, what vexes the field about tefillah, I believe, also points to its future success.