Sunday, September 11, 2016

Avodah She-balev: Shaping the Tefillah Experience at SAR

By: Ms. Lisa Schlaff, Director of Judaic Studies

At any conference of yeshiva day school educators there is bound to be a session on the challenge of tefillah in the Modern Orthodox day school environment. And indeed, there are challenges; be it that the circadian rhythms of teenagers aren’t attuned to sof zman keriyat shema, the words are not always easily accessible, and the first period biology test is looming. But far outweighing these challenges is the import of helping our students cultivate a personal relationship with God, and acclimating them into a tefillah community. This year, our theme is Avodat Hashem, and as chazal tell us איזוהי עבודה שבלב? הוי אומר זו תפילה (Taanit 2a).

With our theme in mind, I’d like to highlight some questions we have considered in years of shaping, and reshaping, our tefillah program in school. How can we best balance communal tefillah with individual paths of connecting to God? How much voice should we give teenagers in shaping their tefillah experience? What is the best way to deepen student understanding of the words of the siddur? Below are some lessons we have learned in our attempt to answer these questions. 

I. Finding the Right Balance

A primary goal of our tefillah program is that students feel part of a tefillah community and are working together to enhance the tefillah atmosphere. As students enter high school, it is important to build upon their years of shul-going and deepen their understanding of the choreography and structure of a shul space so they can be real contributors to this environment.
Taken alone, this goal would lead us to a rather standardized tefillah structure, without room for innovation, and without taking into account individual dispositions. Perhaps the paramount question we have faced in shaping our tefillah program is how to balance this goal with the similarly crucial goal of deepening student connection to tefillah. For a large number of our students, these goals are not in conflict with each other; many students are able to find connection in the daily rhythm of a standardized tefillah. But an equally large number of our students will find connection through music, through intense focus, through slowing down the pace. How to balance?

Rather than allow students to choose alternative tefillah options when they first enter high school, we feel it is important to embed students in a standardized tefillah environment. Hence, our ninth grade spends a year davening together in a daily minyan that resembles those of most of our shuls. With this foundational experience, and as students mature, we open up alternative tefillah options to our 10th-12th graders. Over the years we have tinkered with what these options are, and how often to offer them. Here’s where we have landed: Our alternative tefillah offerings all follow the model of “tefillah with…” We have a tefillah with meditation as opposed to a meditation tefillah. We have a tefillah with explanation, as opposed to an explanatory tefillah. (Click here for a list of last year’s tefillah options). The distinction is not simply linguistic; framing the experience as “tefillah with meditation,” puts the primary emphasis on the tefillah experience. And indeed, at “tefillah with meditation,” students follow the standard matbea of tefillah, with an abridged pesukei de-zimra in order to allow time for meditation prior to shema and shmoneh esreh. The goal is that standardized tefillah is enriched by, rather than supplanted by, these optional experiences.

For this reason, we offer alternative options only three days a week over the course of fifteen weeks throughout the school year. This allows students to explore an avenue of connection without it becoming tired, and emphasizes the paramount role of community in the davening experience. As an individual I may connect in a particular way, but I cannot abandon the community to pursue my individual interest. It is our hope that this carefully calculated balance communicates the message to our students that their religious lives will, and should, always involve balance - of individual and communal needs, of keva and kavvanah.

II. The Role of Student Choice

When we started our alternative tefillah program, we knew students would appreciate being able to choose from amongst a range of offerings. What surprised us though, was how much they appreciated just having a choice - the sheer significance of the autonomy itself. Most surprising is to hear from students who do not partake of the alternative options that they love being in a school in which alternatives are offered. In affording students some choice around tefillah, we are communicating that their individual voice matters. Just as adults might choose to go to the Carlebach minyan, the Hashkama minyan, or the Standard minyan, we are entrusting students with some autonomy over their religious lives. Perhaps more significantly, such autonomy sends the message that they need to actively think about the decisions they make around tefillah; what are the ways in which I best connect? What type of davener am I? These are the types of questions we want students to deeply consider as they mature.

III. The Significance of Student Leadership
It goes without saying that an important part of our job as tefillah educators is empowering students to take leadership in the tefillah space. Conventionally, this means that students lead tefillah and serve as gabaim. In some of our most successful tefillah spaces, student leadership extends beyond that to include students giving divrei tefillah, making announcements, and ensuring that the space itself is ready and organized for tefillah. All of these roles are significant in enabling students to see themselves as active members of a tefillah community, but they are also quite narrowly defined. Last year, we started a Vaad Tefilah, in which we engaged a group of student volunteers to give us feedback about, and help us continue to shape our tefillah program. At Vaad meetings, we invited students to wrestle with big questions embedded in the communal tefillah experience; How can we best engage those to whom tefillah does not come naturally? What is the appropriate balance between explanation of tefillah and tefillah itself? How can we ensure that tefillah itself is smooth and held to a high standard, while also affording a wide range of students the chance to lead, learn and grow? The Vaad provided us with an opportunity to push students to deal with core issues in communal tefillah, and in doing so, imagine themselves as future tefillah leaders in our community. We began the Vaad last year as a series of conversations, and look forward this year to its next steps as we implement ideas together with students.

IV. Tefillah Education outside of the Tefillah Space
Over the years we have become increasingly aware of the difficulty of containing goals for tefillah only within the forty minute space of daily davening. We have added a beit midrash curriculum for ninth grade which centers around biur tefillah - understanding the words. We have designated a faculty member to teach shaliach tzibbur skills to students during lunch or a free.
In our theme kickoff program on September 15th, we will be learning about how the concept of Avodat Hashem plays out in our Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur tefillot. If we are serious about creating a tefillah mindset, tefillah cannot live in an isolated space, but needs to permeate school culture.


What all of these initiatives share is a fundamental approach to tefillah as a classroom space. Just as in our classrooms we set goals, ask how we can achieve them for a heterogenous group of students, allow students to help shape their experiences, and engage students in big questions, we should aim to do the same for tefillah. There remains a tremendous amount of work to do to further our tefillah goals, and we are proud to engage with a group of people - both faculty and students - who are excited and invigorated by this work.