When we consulted with headteachers of Jewish primary schools back in 2010, they were very concerned about the attitudes of pupils to prayer. They could follow the tefillot and knew when to stand up and sit down, but the experience was mostly void of meaning. In many cases, pupils did not know what they were saying and the tefillot did not mean anything to them personally.
In the past 15 years, a body of research has uncovered a strong connection between spiritual development and human well-being, in particular mental health.
In her book, The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving, Dr Lisa Miller sets out clear evidence that children are biologically hardwired for forming spiritual connections, which supports them to live and learn in a meaningful and purposeful way.
If this ‘living relationship to a higher power’ is not nurtured and developed, it can be lost, leaving children very vulnerable to the pressures of our achievement-focused and materialistic culture.
Children might feel that their value and purpose are purely dependent on
how well they achieve academically or at sport, how popular they are with their friends or how wealthy their families are.
Parents unwittingly contribute to this by mostly praising children for their achievements and popularity.
In their second decade, children with no inner sense of purpose beyond their abilities, who do not feel connected to their communities, are vulnerable to emotional suffering and risky behaviour.
Research shows that a spiritual connection does not have to be religious in nature. The ‘higher power’ could be God, nature, the universe or an ultimate loving guiding life force.
However, there is a real opportunity in Jewish schools to use tefillah to help children build spiritual connections.
The required daily act of worship in school is too often used for learning the skills and mechanics of communal prayer, rather than giving pupils a chance for reflection.
Jewish schools wanting to address this can now use the PaJeS Partnerships for Jewish Schools) resource Pathways to God. Once a week, schools can pause ‘going through the siddur’ and explore the meaning of tefillah in more depth, including encouraging children to make personal connections with God.
They can use Pathways to God to acknowledge that these journeys are
individual, ongoing and personal.
As part of our ongoing work with teachers, Rabbi Zvi Hirschfield, of the Pardes Institute, recently trained more than 50 Jewish studies teachers in London and Manchester.
His starting point was: what inspires us as teachers about tefillah? What are our tefillah highs and lows and what can we take as strengths and challenges from these?
In order to inspire our children, we need to be inspired ourselves. What
does not resonate with teachers (or parents) will not resonate with pupils.
How can we make sure that prayer is a meaningful and even a spiritual
experience? Is it about more knowledge and skills?
That certainly plays a role.
Once we understand the crucial importance of spirituality for our children and ourselves, though, we need to think how we can add this to
our daily conversations and experiences at school and how we can make school prayer a time for reflection and connection.