Turning Tefilah Up a Notch: Increasing Student Engagement in Prayer

In this special guest post, Hillel Broder - a Phd Candidate and English teacher at SAR High School - poses some interesting and inspiring questions regarding Tefilah in our schools. Hillel has spearheaded innovative programs in Tefilah at SAR High School and continues to frame these programs to maximize engagement and inspire his students. Along with YUSP's Melanie Eisen, Hillel will be hosting a Twitter Chat about Tefilah in schools on October 21st,  from 8-9 EST.  We hope that you will join the conversation at #tefilahedu.  The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of the YU School Partnership or Yeshiva University.

The Siddur is the most frequently-visited text in the Jewish day school. Students spend somewhere around 40-50 minutes (at the very least!), between shacharit and mincha, revisiting the same prayers over the course of every school day. And over the course of our students' lives, the Siddur will likely be the most frequented text, well beyond the Talmud, and, unless they study Torah for more than an hour a day, well beyond any book of Tanach.

Yet, somehow education through repetition alone has been a sufficient experience for most Jewish day schools. On the other hand, questions not only of exposure and literacy but strategies of analytic and creative response have been imposed about highly academic curricula in Talmud and Tanach.

Below, I propose a series of questions--really, challenges--to schools for inspiring an absolute commitment to the Siddur, in particular, and Jewish prayer, more generally, as a site for a life-long reflective, religious, and even spiritual practice.

First, in the areas of tefilah literacy and comprehension, Jewish day schools must ask themselves:

What are our benchmarks for basic siddur literacy?

  • Where in our curriculum, in other words, do we teach students how to navigate the great canonical anthologies that our siddurs have become? Such navigation would include the choreography of the siddur, the structure of the siddur, the prayers for different days (and use of both Tables and Appendices).

How do we assess if students can successfully participate in a communal prayer and recite appropriate individual prayers?

  • Do we practice--and check for understanding--the recitation of the siddur through a guided and engaged teacher-student experience?

second, and equally important, are the areas of Tefilah experience, engagement, and regular practice:

What are developmentally appropriate understandings of the prayer experience, God, and ritual that we wish to teach?

  • How do we assess for such comprehension?
  • How do we teach students to cultivate dispositions of love, awe, and humility in the prayer experience?
  • How do we evolve our "God talk" as students develop from childhood through adolescence and to adulthood?
  • And how do we reflect meaningfully with our students on ritual?

What are our goals for a student who prays--daily--with a siddur and as part of a community?

  • How will we design a tefilah curriculum--from K-12--to encourage a sustained practice of tefilah well beyond high school?
  • How can we assure our students that the techniques of prayer, the practice of a daily tefilah, is a meaningful, life-long endeavour?

Of course, many schools and institutions have deepened their orientation towards tefilah pedagogy and practice.  At SAR HS, for example, we have offered more options for tefilah alternatives, and we have incorporated into our minyanim the Koren's Ani Tefilah Siddur, which provides a truly rich enhancement of the teenager's tefilah experience.

However, I don't know if we're doing enough--yet. As educators, our responsibility is not only to acculturate our students to the norms of their shuls; it is to inspire them with a text and practice that could--and should--sustain them throughout a lifetime.

I'll end this piece with a few positive suggestions that I've employed, over and again, in my own tefilot, as well as in sessions for tefilah teachers:

1. Start by surveying your students.

Check for understanding, of course, but also ask them what they find most challenging about your particular prayer space, service, or ritual. The questions will vary depending on the grade level, denomination, and institution, but the gesture of interest in the student's experience is received well. Teachers are usually surprised to find that students crave fewer "flashy" innovations than they do small fixes.

2. Acknowledge the varying developmental levels in a more nuanced manner.

In high school, acknowledge that, generally speaking, a freshman's conception of God and prayer is quite different than a senior's. This will allow for certain differentiation within institutions.

3. Transform prayer and the Siddur as the text-site for such prayer, into a personal,
reflective practice.

Create an informal (or even formal) curriculum that encourages written responses to the siddur in the form of a journal or other creative mediums. Acknowledge that translation work itself of the siddur, in a regular manner, is the very act of personalizing kavanah--an individual's intention. 

4. Make tefilah a space for cultivating varying emotions and religious sensibilities--the Siddur is full of them (love, awe, righteous indignation, humbling, desire, etc.!)

Certainly, a curriculum with teacher guidance would deepen such a experience, but so would regular song, dance, and reflective guidance as the tefilah unfolds. Think about the tefilah space as a fitness center for cultivating these dispositions--but in a divine key.