An Age-Adjusted Program for Tefillah Education

by | May 3, 2023 | Cultivating Jewish Spirituality | 0 comments

I remember, years ago, walking into an elementary Jewish day school classroom for tefillah. I witnessed joy, enthusiasm, song, and inspiration and the visit made an indelible impression on my personal adult tefillah experience. Participating in a middle school minyan elicited a sense of purpose as I was reminded of the bright future that our Jewish youth will usher in. I sense that something significant has changed.

Students are coming in at an earlier age with less interest and vigor to connect and participate in active tefillah. As they get older, their connection to the practice and its purpose wane, eventually coming to a screeching halt. This is not a problem of tefillah but is a symptom of a more critical and foundational challenge on our hands—a deteriorating relationship between young Jews and God.

I recall the time that a parent asked me why Jewish day schools rely on the gap year after high school as the solution to solving the student-God relationship and, as a result, the students’ investment in their tefillot. That question jarred me and inspired me to make a change.

Tefillah Curriculum: A Social and Emotional Journey

Young students (K – 4th grade) are open to magical and innovative thinking as is reflective of their developmental stages. They are open to thinking about God and His impact on the world as they explore creation, the early stories of the Avot (patriarchs) and Imahot (matriarchs), and the foundational holidays of the Jewish calendar. At the same time, this is a pivotal time for their social and emotional development, exploring their expanding worlds and attempting to learn their role in their unique spaces. This provides us with a key tool in our arsenal.

To harness this, we adopted the Ani Tefillah program which aims to develop our children’s connection to God through the practice of mindfulness. Each student’s tefillah is a personal expression of their inner selves. One child may gravitate towards singing and movement while another will connect deeply to introspection, so we aim to provide our students the space to explore which method works best for them and allow them to adapt or adjust in real time.

The Ani Tefillah program provides real and meaningful time to prepare prior to praying through the lens of short lessons focusing on the idea of “stop…think…feel.” This process, which is presented through classroom discussion, workbook-based lessons, and a personal guided tefillah journal, provides different modalities to engage them, supports the development of their sense of self and self-worth, and creates a safe space for a conversation about God to take place.

This foundation, and the space that it provides for our students, is critical in demystifying conversations and questions around our Jewish identities, how we relate to and interact with God, and, in turn, how we describe/design our relationship in our middle school years.

Tefillah BeTzibbur: Being a Part of Something Bigger Than Myself

As our students transition from 5th grade and begin their middle school years, their development focuses more deeply on their personal identity, their place in the larger world, and on making concrete decisions on who is part of their social circles and what activities are part of their social sphere. This adjustment of focus plays a significant role in our tefillah education and design.

Students in the 6th grade expand their tefillah repertoire and their understanding of daily ritual practices as they are represented in communal tefillah. They learn the ebb and flow of the various sections of tefillah alongside the call-and-response activities and the expectations of the members of the group, such as when the Amidah is being repeated. For some, this process comes easy while for others it is a vast adjustment from their prior experience.

To accommodate for the transition, beginning in middle school, prior to tefillah we engage our students in small group tefillah classes where teachers utilize different sources from Rabbi Sacks’ Ten Paths to God to both continue and enhance the conversation that began in lower school. Our students are given a space where they can ask the controversial and real questions that they are facing daily in a supportive and safe space along with their peers and guided by a highly trained teacher. It is only after this that we begin morning tefillah. This allows our students to have the chance to physically, psychologically, and spiritually prepare themselves for the conversation and relationship-building experience of their personal tefillot.

Tefillah 2.0: Owning our Religious Responsibilities

As our high school students begin to take on increased levels of autonomy and self-advocacy, we begin to adjust their school experience by putting them in the driver’s seat—from choice in the classes they take to choice of the personal path they want to forge in high school to set them up for success into their adult years. This autonomy is applied to our student’s religious experience as well.

In early fall, together with our principals, we hold various small group discussions to break down the concerns and issues that our students are grappling with in their young adult relationship with tefillah and God. With the open environment of their early years as a foundation, we find that they are open to these deep discussions.

Our students raise issues ranging from the physical space design, the siddurim that are used, the differences between the experiences of boys and girls, and the difficulty of tefillah in environments engineered by teachers. These discussions have led to important changes that helped to reshape the tefillah experience for our students, including changing the seating, purchasing new siddurim that support the student experience, and redesigning of the tefillah schedule to accommodate arrival and morning challenges.

These changes are further supported by dialogues in seminar classes that take place in the 11th and 12th grades. The seminar classes address in general the religious experience of our students and particularly the ideas of Shabbat, tefillah, Torah learning, and the difference between the religious journeys of men and women.

We are encouraged by how the process contributes to our students’ final years in school and how it impacts the school that they leave behind. As this is still a work in progress, we are looking forward to seeing the impact that this will have in the years to come.

Calling All Parents and Teachers: It Starts with Us and Ends with Us

Our efforts in supporting the religious growth and development of our students cannot reside in the hands of our children alone. Our teachers need to be consistent models for our students, whether in the classroom or in tefillah. How teachers interact with our students, how they themselves show up in their personal prayer, and what environments they support speak volumes to our students. Even more so, our teachers’ willingness to engage with these challenging areas of our Jewish religious identities shows a sense of personal integrity and honesty that is both refreshing and empowering for our students.

Together with community Rabbis, we have expanded this conversation with our parent community as well. Through bi-weekly and monthly classes, we engage with large and diverse groups of parents to explore our relationship with God and tefillah in particular. Our students get the message that their parents see this as important, both for themselves and for their children. Seeing their parents involved in their own religious exploration has deep implications for how they view their personal role to explore as well. As such, we are not only partnering with our parent community, but we are utilizing their ability to empower their children as another tool for investing in our students’ religious development.

Our journeys are fraught with many challenges from who is guiding the experience, what texts and sources are being heard and which are not, and how deeply we engage all the members of our community. We are not naive to believe that we have found the magic process to develop a real connection that can be supported through our children’s natural and religious development. This journey that we are on is a commitment to prioritizing our relationship with God in a way that speaks with, and not at, our children.

Jordan Silvestri is the Head of School at the Robert M. Beren Academy (Houston). Rabbi Silvestri is a LMSW who worked in the field of social services for ten years. His goal as an educator is to create educational spaces that speak to our children’s social and emotional needs as they reach higher levels in their studies.

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