The topic of Tefilla is a challenging and complex issue that many schools, youth groups and synagogues confront in their daily educational work. Tefilla engagement is an area where many educators have more questions than answers. In fact, according to the an article in Ravsak, when educators were asked their number one challenge in schools, Tefilla was the resounding #1 answer. In response to this challenge, I created a new educational initiative, The Tefilla Project. I have been coaching educators in strategies of Tefilla engagement in both formal and informal settings.
Initially, I began with coaching and mentoring individual educators to assist them in creating a positive and engaging Tefilla environment for their specific students. However, my vision has always been to create a schoolwide Tefilla engagement model, as a strategic educational plan. But, is that really attainable? Can a school or youth organization/group create a true Tefilla model that is schoolwide? I have always believed that this is a reality, but never had the opportunity until now.
Most recently, I have had the privilege of teaching at the Keshet school in Jerusalem. As part of my role as Judaism Coordinator of the Elementary School, I have opened the discussion among the staff of creating a school-wide strategic approach to Tefilla engagement. How should each grade facilitate Tefilla? Should there be a gradual increase in Tefillot from grade to grade, or possibly the reverse if necessary? Should we eventually incorporate chazzanim and a more “traditional” Tefilla system as students get older, or keep the basic model the same throughout elementary school, and possibly middle school? Those are other strategic topics were discussed and the content of the interaction was fascinating.
Let’s back up for one moment and examine the place of Tefilla in schools. Many schools and often many youth programs at Synagogues of all denominations incorporate Tefilla as an integral part of the educational schedule. This is usually a given. I will not elaborate on the topic of should schools have Tefilla every day or not, which is a fascinating and elementary topic within itself. However, given that reality, one of the obvious questions that arise is how do schools or youth programs approach Tefilla engagement for their students on an organizational level, especially considering the fact that Tefilla is an everyday staple in the schedule? For the sake of comparison, other Judaic studies, such as Tanach, Talmud or Halacha, are not necessarily an everyday occurrence. For the most part, there is a strategic and sometimes a school-wide program for teaching Judaic studies, that reflects in the level of teaching per grade, topics covered, books covered in each grade and a system that is fixed, for the most part. This makes the curriculum more predictable and looks at the student holistically, in the progression of grades 1 – 6 and beyond.
Turning back to the topic of Tefilla, I challenge all educators, administrators and Rabbis to rethink how they structure Tefilla for their students. I have spoken to tens of educators and have never heard of a school-wide approach to Tefilla. What should a grade 1 student experience as opposed to a grade 8 student? How many Tefillot should we incorporate for each grade? What is the measure of success for students from any given organization in the area of Tefilla? How do we, as educators, set our students up for success?
Generally speaking, many educators tend to stay on an “island” and feel their way through the students they are given, without having any connection with other classes or teachers. One seasoned teacher from Keshet, who has been teaching for over 25 years, admitted that she never had the opportunity of monitoring or even watching another teacher engage their classroom. She has been running her own system for 25 years, without any coordination or collaboration with the rest of her staff, albeit she has been very successful in the field. However, there is no transition from her grade 1 class to the higher grades, no connection between a student’s experience in the younger grades to the higher elementary grades. Why not?
This topic was one of many that motivated me to starting my new educational intiative, The Tefilla Project. My vision for each Jewish school, youth group or program is to have an organizational plan for how their students engage Tefilla, and which direction they want to lead their students towards. How do we accomplish this feat? What conversations need to take place? Is this a primary goal of a Jewish educational organization or an element we plug into our schedules out of “obligation” or “tradition”?
Tefilla engagement is a rudimentary and essential component of Jewish connection. There is definitely merit of scheduling it as an everyday educational component. If that is our approach, then how do we ensure its success?