Avoiding the Prayer Policy

January 25, 2019

Enjoy this week's Ta Shma here.

Dear Beit Rabban Community,
I have been thinking a lot about communal prayer this week.
On Monday students, staff, parents, grandparents and alumni came together for our annual MLK Day tefillah to honor the holiday as Jews do with communal prayer. We sang civil rights tunes throughout tefillah and interspersed images from the movement to inspire our prayers. Last week, our first grade, Shorashim students had their Siddur Celebration. Again we came together to pray as a kehillah, where each student shared reflections about favorite tefillah before we recited it. Our musical tefillah teacher joined both days with guitar in hand, and there was a palpable feeling of community.  I felt the strength of "ברב עם הדרת מלך" the Biblical passage that the Rabbis understood to mean that God is better exalted when many come together to perform a mitzvah.
Prayer is a huge part of the Jewish Day School experience, not just at Beit Rabban. If you attended day school or Hebrew school you are likely aware that my last sentence induces dread for many people. Faith-based schools across the country-Jewish and others- struggle to facilitate positive prayer for their students, especially as students get older. All educators, whether they believe prayer to be an obligation or a choice, want their students to develop a personal relationship with prayer such that they understand the value of it and choose to participate. No educator enjoys serving as the prayer police whose role is to force children to say prayers. And yet, that is a ubiquitous role in Jewish day schools.
Obviously we are unwilling to resign ourselves to this very common phenomenon. So what to do? Well, we started by asking ourselves what we are trying to achieve through tefillah.
As we were working in partnership with Mechon Hadar to develop The Standards for Fluency in Jewish Text and Practice (now in full force at Beit Rabban and other schools), we fleshed out clear goals in the area of prayer education. We think about tefillah in the educational context of content, skills and dispositions. We teach tefillah skills, including how to recite prayers and navigate the siddur. We teach content, including the meaning of prayers. And we cultivate dispositions: both dispositions toward the act of prayer, like respect and joy, and dispositions that should be cultivated through prayer, like awe, gratitude and sense of belonging in community.  
With these goals guiding us, we developed a tefillah curriculum from preschool-8th grade and invested in a new staff position, tefillah educator. In all grades, students pray each morning, expanding their matbei as they grow and learn. Each class also has two periods of iyun tefillah each week, when students learn new tefillot, both recitation and meaning, and explore the particular tefillah disposition of the month that the whole school is emphasizing. Our musical tefillah teacher also joins each class weekly to lead a song-filled and guitar accompanied tefillah that would make the chasidic masters proud. We also bring our students together monthly for cross-grade tefillah on Rosh Chodesh or holidays, when older students sit with their younger friends, siblings and reading buddies. Finally, we invite our larger community to pray with us a few times a year. 
It might seem ironic, if not counter intuitive, that our core strategy to combat tefillah boredom and resentment is to spend more time on tefillah. But we know that if our children are to actually develop a lifelong prayer practice, they need the skills, content and dispositions to allow and inspire them to do so.  They have to know what they are doing and, critically, why they are doing it. That second part cannot be taught, we can only create opportunities for them explore possible answers. The more we facilitate these opportunities for tefillah learning, exploration, community, and joy, the more likely we are to avoid prayer policing, which does not advance our goals and is likely to undermine them. 
Thank you to all who joined us in tefillah over the past week, your presence strengthened the power of our students' communal tefillah. 
Wishing all a restful and rejuvenating Shabbat,