Educating Toward Spirituality
Lisa Schlaff is the Director of Judaic Studies at SAR High School (Riverdale, New York).
As a teacher entering the davening space on any particular morning in my Modern Orthodox high school, I have a long wish-list of what I want for my students. I want them to understand the words they recite. I want them to connect with the community of mitpallelim (pray-ers) present in the room. I want them to see themselves as part of a community of mitpallelim stretching throughout Jewish history. I want them to feel comfortable in a shul environment. I want them to experience a sense of awe in standing before God. When we pause to iterate our goals as tefillah educators, we have such an overwhelming number of goals that it is impossible to focus on, let alone make headway toward, any single one. All of these goals are important—we are just trying to achieve too many of them at once. This article is an argument for homing in on ONE particular goal in our educational tefillah spaces—and constructing those spaces to achieve that goal.
Educating Toward Shul vs. Educating Toward Spirituality
In the current Modern Orthodox high school environment, whether by conscious decision or force of habit, we are educating toward shul. Tefillah in school tends to mimic our adult shul environment. We expect our students to show up, to take a siddur, to know when to stand or sit, to know when it is appropriate to talk and when it is not, to listen to the rabbi, and to volunteer for the community. Teaching our children how to “do shul” entails familiarity with a specialized language and an intricate choreography.
Despite the critical importance of ensuring that our students are comfortable in shul, I believe that our efforts would be much better spent turning our attention away from educating toward shul and to educating toward spirituality, and by that I mean fostering a connection with God. Our educational tefillah spaces should allow students to pause from their routines, appreciate the expansiveness of the world around them, feel gratitude, and allow God to enter their lives. The sense of connection developed during tefillah should spill over into other areas of life: how they say berakhot, and how they appreciate the natural world around them. Such overflow will only occur if there is a focus on an individual personal connection, not only on communal norms.
I am convinced that, rather than doing this at some other time during the school day, creating a meaningful experience during the time set aside for tefillah is not only a chance to transform the contemporary tefillah experience, but is an opportunity to help my students learn how to use the tefillah time that they will have for the rest of their lives as spiritually substantive. Looking around the room I see students who would like their tefillah to be meaningful, especially as they focus for shorter times like the Amidah, but I also notice how much of the time is under-utilized by many of the students—especially during sections of Pesukei Dezimra (the introductory prayers) and the times that students are passive rather than actively engaged (like the repetition of the Amidah). It seems like students want to connect spiritually, but need some help doing so.
Less is More
In that light, I advocate for a tefillah that retains the basic halakhic requirements—Birkhot Hashahar, BaruchShe’amar, Ashrei, Yishtabach, and the core central section including Birkhot Kriat Shema through the Amidah. The repetition of the Amidah would be eliminated, replaced by a practice commonly used at Minha in which the hazzan and tzibur say the first three blessings—including Kedusha—together. This would be followed by Torah reading on Mondays and Thursdays. These are the parts of the tefillah that students recognize as core and for which they are more prepared to muster focus. With this core of tefillah in place, we have cleared a few minutes each day for spiritual education to be added to an authentic tefillah experience.
One Suggestion for Educating Toward Spirituality
I propose spending the first ten minutes of the time allotted for Shaharit each morning engaged in a petiha—an opening activity that helps set the tone for tefillah without interrupting the tefillah with explanations or meditation. This notion is neither new nor revolutionary, it is advocated by a mishnah (Berakhot 5:1) which describes the early pious generations who paused for a while before praying so that their hearts would be focused on the encounter with God and was reiterated in educational settings recently by Hillel Broder.
What could a broader tefillah program look like in an Orthodox school? First, choice plays a significant role. The options of different minyanim, each with its own approach to petiha, means that students are more likely to be engaged. In fact, for high school students, the very notion of being offered a choice can be even more significant than the actual content of the choice. As adults, we can choose to go to the brisk hashkama minyan, the minyan with lots of singing, the minyan where the rabbi speaks, or the minyan where the rabbi doesn’t speak. When we offer students similar choices, we respect them as young adults able to make thoughtful decisions about their davening lives. Here are some sample petihot for different minyan options, many of which have antecedents in halakha or Jewish history.
Song: The first ten minutes of tefillah time are spent in song or with instrumental accompaniment (preferably with students playing). Students can lead and choose the songs, and the songs can vary with the Jewish calendar or respond to a particular moment in the school or current events.
Kehillah: The power of being part of a community can be leveraged to help students connect to the experience they are about to enter. Tefillah can begin with small group check-ins or daily routines in which students share something they bring to the experience that morning. They may answer prompts such as: What are you davening for today? What is something you want to leave behind as you start tefillah?
Meditation: Tefillah can be opened with ten minutes of meditation, focusing on a particular area of tefillah, on the encounter with self, the encounter with God, or something else which is relevant.
Journaling: Students can start their day writing about their state of mind, what they are bringing to tefillah, whether or not they feel connected and why, and who and what they are davening for. Journaling can set the tone for entering tefillah in a reflective mindset.
Vaad Mussar /Tikkun Hamiddot: This preparation for tefillah focuses on character development, with different middot (personal behavioral traits) presented as discrete units. The teacher might teach some Torah related to a particular middah, for example, humility. Students can be asked to share their experiences and struggles with that middah. They can be given “assignments” in exercising that middah, and report back on triumphs and challenges. The goal is to enter the tefillah moment in a reflective space focused on personal growth.
Mixed mode: These petiha options need not be so distinct—one might want to combine elements of a few of these, varying them over time.
Teachers as Mitpallelim
To execute a program of petiha effectively with students, it is crucial that teachers bring themselves primarily as mitpallelim. How do I, as a teacher, enter the tefillah experience in a way that is meaningful to me? If I dedicate ten minutes each morning to prepare for tefillah, what might that look like? Focusing first on myself as a mitpallelet helps maintain the authenticity of my efforts and avoids the depersonalization that often occurs in a rush to apply an idea to a classroom. Before introducing the idea of the petiha to students, we can create a faculty group dedicated to practicing various petihot, which helps model an immersive experience and provides a safe space for creativity and experimentation. Most significantly, it helps teachers understand and internalize the possibilities of the project in a way that will enable meaningful translation to students.
Much of the discussion of the challenges of tefillah in day schools is focused on students who have difficulty with tefillah and neglects to consider how we can challenge our “good” daveners to deepen their tefillah experience. Creating space for a petiha acknowledges that all of us—even those of us who do not struggle with tefillah—can still work on what it means to enter this distinct space.
If we turn our attention from educating toward shul to educating toward spirituality, might we run the risk of devaluing the power of ritual, and particularly, of communal ritual? We need to be mindful not to educate a generation of students to daven by meditating alone in their backyards. We also need to help students understand the power of showing up each day, even if we aren’t “feeling it.” For these reasons, it is important that the work we do with students remains in the context of communal tefillah so that students appreciate that meaningful spiritual growth can occur within the context of a ritual praying community. The communal framework of tefillah helps us recognize that religious growth is not an individual endeavor; it allows us to strengthen each other and holds us accountable for showing up when we might not do so on our own.
As we focus on helping students connect and not just on “doing shul,” we need to be explicit with students that our long-term goal is providing them with tools to help them experience God in their lives. Tefillah is an important context for that encounter, but the goal of our work is to show students that the elongated ritual encounter of Shaharit replays itself multiple times throughout the day in the miniaturized form of berakhot. If I learn to pause and reflect before speaking to God, to pause to appreciate, and to pause to make sure I am fully awake, I will more easily pause before putting food in my mouth or after going to the bathroom. As tefillah educators, we have the opportunity to show students the power of being present.
Lisa Schlaff is the Director of Judaic Studies at SAR High School (Riverdale, New York).
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