Rethinking Prayer and Jewish Education from a Neurodiverse Perspective
I’ll start this article with a little quiz:
Q: What’s the connection between a manual typewriter, morning prayers, ADHD, and the school system?
A: My neurodivergent brain on Shabbat morning attempting to pray shacharit.
I bet you need a bit of clarification, so I’ll give you a glimpse into the workings of my neurodivergent brain. I’m a logical and associative visual thinker with a brain that goes into hyperspace mode, carrying me far away from things I’m supposed to be concentrating on at lightning speed.
My neurodiversity is likely a form of ADHD, partially due to brain surgery. Some of my distractions are due to wandering thoughts and others to sensory stimuli. I also have Irlen syndrome and irregular auditory processing. Irlen syndrome causes visual distortions due to inefficient perception and processing of light and is treated using colored spectral filters.
There are many times when I have great difficulty concentrating. Over the years, I have developed coping skills to help me stay on track. But there are times, such as during prayers, when they are not as effective as I would like them to be.
A bit about prayers
Prayer is a central part of Jewish life, and practicing Jews pray every day. Prayers are elevating, meaningful, empowering, and far more significant than I will ever be able to understand. I have seen and felt firsthand how they helped bring about miracles while healing from my surgery.
There are many ways to pray. Some prayers are like a personal dialogue with HaShem and are individual and ever-changing.
Other prayers are read from a siddur, a prayer book, and are cyclical and repeated daily. Minor changes are made on different days of the week and holidays. One of the benefits of repetitive prayer is that children can learn to pray by heart at an early age, enabling them to become active participants in services.
Concentration and repetitive prayer
The challenging part about prayers being repetitive is that it makes it easy for people’s minds to drift to other places. Many people experience this difficulty, and every individual must find ways to help themselves get back on track. When I focus on reading the words from the siddur, it is usually helpful.
Lost in neurodivergent hyperspace
Last Shabbat morning was one of the days when this technique was inefficient. I kept zoning out into “neurodivergent hyperspace mode.” My brain kept jumping rapidly between different realms of thinking, and I couldn’t manage to focus on my morning prayers.
After I caught myself dreaming for about the fifth time during shacharit, I began to shake my head to try to get myself back on track. It was then that an image of a manual typewriter suddenly popped into my brain.
I’m not sure how many people from this generation have ever used one (or even seen one). When you reach the end of the line on one of these old-fashioned machines, a bell rings (usually), and then you push a lever to manually move the carriage back to begin typing the following line.
I started laughing because I felt like my brain was behaving like one of those typewriters. It was as if each tangent I went off on was like a newly typed line. A bell would go off in my head when I reached the end of my thought, and I would realize I had been dreaming. I would then try to refocus and return to my prayers, only to find myself “typing” away again in a new direction a few minutes later.
I must admit I was pretty amused by this comparison. But I was also getting frustrated because I couldn’t stay focused enough long to finish praying.
This type of associative thinking is prevalent amongst people with concentration issues. Parents and educators need to be sensitive to this, and if a child suddenly goes on a tangent that appears way off subject, it might be due to different ways of thinking.
Difficulty concentrating is not indifference
It’s imperative to differentiate between concentration difficulties and disinterest. If someone is unable to focus, it only means that in that specific moment on that particular day, they were experiencing interference. It does not mean they are uninterested or indifferent about what they are doing.
Prayer in the school setting
Whenever I have difficulty focusing during prayers, I think about how hard it must be for children with concentration issues to pray at school. Most classrooms are full of distractions and noise, making it practically impossible to stay focused.
In addition, teachers often give children negative feedback about their prayers if they do not participate as expected, in much the same way they evaluate them on academic subjects. I am certain this affects children’s motivation and attitude towards prayer.
My instinct (and what kids have told me) is that it can lead to stress, frustration, and perhaps antagonism on the part of the students. If children are neurodivergent, have difficulty concentrating, or receive negative feedback, there is a good chance they will come to believe that prayer is not one of their strong points.
This lack of success may lead to avoidance, as kids usually prefer to do things they excel at or earn positive feedback. I know many children who only pray in school. During vacations, they avoid praying unless someone convinces them to do so. This same type of avoidance occurs regarding Torah studies as well.
The mix of academics and Torah studies can lead to distancing
Don’t get me wrong. I believe it is critical to both pray and teach Torah studies in schools. However, I think there is a downside to the methodologies employed. When taught academically, religious subjects often lose their true meaning and significance. In many cases, they are also challenging for children. These challenges can lead to low grades, feelings of failure, and frustration.
As a result, I have encountered many teens who decide to discontinue their Torah studies after finishing their high school exams. They relate to them as part of their academic world rather than their Jewish identity and religion. In addition, some of them also decide to distance themselves from prayer and other religious practices altogether.
I find this to be a sad and worrisome problem. I do believe, however, that the educational system can make changes to improve the situation.
A few suggestions to help kids connect
Over the years, I have come up with many ideas on how to help kids connect to prayer and Torah studies in school. Here are a few of them:
- First and foremost, there should be more focus on teaching Emunah (faith and belief) in the school curriculum. Faith helps create meaning and identity and empowers people to perform mitzvot and pray.
- It’s essential to ensure that children understand the significance and meaning of prayers. This knowledge will help prevent them from praying while on “autopilot.”
- Teachers should help children recognize and appreciate the many miracles they see every day. This appreciation will help deepen their faith.
- Children should learn about the power and beauty of hakarat hatov (thankfulness). It will help them to connect and achieve true happiness and inner peace.
- Educators should never, ever use prayer or Torah studies as punishment! Making students recite psukimor Tehillim to “correct” improper behavior or assigning “homework” of copying passages of Talmud or halacha may lead children to despise and avoid prayer, Torah studies, and possibly mitzvot because they learn to associate them with negativity and punishment.
- When grades, competition, judgment, failure, or punishment are associated with Torah studies and prayer in school, it carries over to other areas of children’s lives. It can lead to the development of negative feelings about Judaism and religion. Children with challenges or neurodiversity are likely to be more at risk for developing these feelings because they tend to receive a lot of negative feedback in the school environment. It’s essential to find more positive, less “academic” ways to teach and evaluate prayer and Torah studies to prevent this from occurring.
- Prayer and Torah studies should become the highlights of the school day. Teachers should incorporate engaging methodologies to create a classroom environment that is exciting, celebratory, interactive, theatrical, musical, and alive with culture and love.
- Last – but essentially first- schools should focus on instilling Jewish values, such as Derech Eretz (politeness), respect, honesty, generosity, kindness, and more. Values are the building blocks of Judaism, and when they become internalized, they help children remain connected to their roots and culture.
Addressing these educational issues will benefit everybody
I hope these suggestions will serve as food for thought. I realize I have raised some uncomfortable points for consideration. Hopefully, they will encourage decision-makers to improve the educational system and develop curriculums to engage and connect children with Judaism and prayer.
In addition, I would like to clarify that the educational challenges I have addressed are relevant for all students- and are most definitely not specific to children with ADHD or other types of neurodivergence.
Neurodiversity is a unique gift and should be appreciated
Neurodivergence is prevalent, and I consider it to be a gift. Journeying through neurodivergent hyperspace has enabled me to gain significant insights and undertake many creative ventures.
A healthy society resembles a tapestry of people with different brains, abilities, beliefs, and cultures. If we learn to recognize, appreciate, celebrate, and accommodate each other’s differences, we will begin to progress toward creating the inclusive, understanding, and respectful society we so greatly need.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Jacki Edry is a graduate of Hampshire College and has an extensive background in education and writing. She has recently published her first book “Moving Forward: Reflections on Autism, Neurodiversity, Brain Surgery, and Faith” and launched a blog on her website jackisbooks.com. Jacki is dedicated to working toward building a more inclusive and equitable society and educational system