Prayer-ful Students


Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School

Nancy Parkes

Our learners at Temple Israel Center eagerly enter our prayer space open to the possibility of connecting to something greater than themselves. Some close their eyes; others sit in deep meditation; and still others chant the prayers as they feel, comprehend, and deeply connect to the words. When the experience and prayer service is finished, our learners leave on a higher plane than when they arrived, and feel an inner sense of peace.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if this was the reality for all of our learners all of the time? Tefillah (prayer) is difficult to teach for so many reasons: there is the constant tension between keva (fixed structure) and kavanah (intention); communal and personal prayer; fixed times for prayer and spontaneous prayer; teaching the skills and meaning of prayer while also creating the opportunity for a spiritual experience. 

These challenges are present whether the setting is a congregational school, day school, or camp. Camp and day school offer consistency and more time to develop the skills necessary to fully participate in a prayer experience, but consistency also can breed complacency. All settings pose the challenge of how to create prayerful people, not just people who know how to pray. 

Tefillah can be a moving experience but, more often than not, it is an experience that is "performed" and spoken without emotion. Is that prayer?

Maimonides said, "Prayer without kavanah is no prayer at all. He who has prayed without kavanah ought to pray once more. He whose thoughts are wandering or occupied with other things need not pray until he has recovered his mental composure. "How often do any of us pray with such focus and intention? And, as educators, how do we create a prayerful person, someone who has both the skills to pray traditionally and the ability-and desire-to connect to God?

As Jews, we share a general knowledge and common language that allows us to effectively communicate with each other, learn from each other, and participate in our Jewish communities. Hirsch calls this "cultural literacy."1 This holds true for prayer. In order to participate in any Shabbat, weekly, or holiday service, there are a certain set of skills that are necessary. As a result, the Hebrew curriculum at Temple Israel Center focuses a great deal on "siddur Hebrew." Our learners work on their Hebrew reading and comprehension skills through their study of prayer. It is through their study of Hebrew and prayer that we also offer them the opportunity to reflect and question what they are learning. By doing so, we allow our learners to engage with not only a specific prayer, but with the concept of prayer itself.

To create prayerful people, instruction in reading and comprehension of Hebrew prayers is not enough. Just as importantly, the environment in which different kinds of prayer experiences are created needs to be considered. This is something we have experimented with quite a bit at Temple Israel Center. Currently, we pray not in the sanctuary, but in an open room that allows us to change the seating configuration. We also adorn this space with fabric decorated by the children. As part of our Torah curriculum, our third- to sixth-graders built their own interpretation of the Mishkan. The fabrics they made now beautify their prayer space. 

We also changed our community prayer experience leaders. Initially, our leaders were our educators; that is, the adults in our community taught our young learners about prayer and instructed them on the skills needed to pray. They would lead by standing in front of our learners, directing them to certain page numbers and giving a brief introduction to each prayer. Now, our madrikhim, teens in the eighth to 12th grades, serve as our prayer leaders. These teens sit among our learners and, before beginning the recitation of a prayer, share their own personal thoughts about that specific prayer. Then, along with our learners, they pray. By "leading" prayer in this way, the material is learned in a more natural way through observation and personal interaction, and becomes internalized rather than simply acquired. Since our madrikhim are people that our learners respect and value as peers, there is a different kind of motivation to participate, and the power of teens demonstrating and living that which has been taught makes a strong impression. 

Lastly, we spend quite a bit of time talking with our learners about God. We don't shy away from their difficult questions, and often use the concept of keva (laws that tell us when to pray, what to say, and how to pray) to address the times when they feel most distant from God-when they are confused, angry, or sad. We explain that keva often give us the strength and words to communicate with God during the times when we least want to pray. This is a powerful lesson for our learners to embrace and understand. 

We recently asked our third- to sixth-graders if they believed they were communicating with God when they prayed. Ninety-eight percent of our learners said "yes." We also asked them why they felt it was important to pray as a community with fixed prayers and at fixed times-even when they "didn't feel like it." One learner replied, "When all of our voices are in song and prayer together, we become stronger as a community. And that allows God to hear us in a different way than when we pray on our own and with our own words."

I'll take that statistic and answer as an indication that we are doing something right. At least for now. Who knows how our learners will feel about prayer next week, next month, or next year when they are a year older. But I do know that we will continue to experiment and strive to achieve both keva and kavanah during our prayer experiences with the goal of creating people who not only know how to pray, but who are prayer-ful people. 

Nancy Parkes is the director of congregational learning at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York, and serves as a mentor for first-year graduate students at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary, where she received a master's degree in Jewish Education in 2006. Temple Israel Center is currently working with JTS and The Davidson School's Reframe: Experiential Education in Congregational Schools initiative to bring experiential education best practices to the congregation's learners.

1 Hirsch, E. D. Jr., Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).