Believing, Behaving, Belonging: Tefillah Education in the 21st Century

Oct. 03, 2010

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 76, Issue 4, pages 379 – 413 


Tefillah is a central component of the curriculum at many congregational schools. Yet despite the time and resources that congregational schools dedicate for “tefillah education,” large numbers of Jews (both children and adults) continue to feel uncomfortable and incompetent in Jewish worship. This research begins to answer the question, “How might we better prepare our children for entry into Jewish communal worship throughout their lives?” Through case studies of three synagogues with reputations for strong, innovative education programs as well as vibrant worship, the author discovered that it is possible to succeed in tefillah education if “success” is defined narrowly: believing, behaving, or belonging.


The author chose three synagogues to study, based on size, location, reputation, and branch of Judaism. She tried to determine how tefillah education happens at each of these congregations: In what ways do education and worship overlap in the synagogue system?; How did the current system come to be?; What are the congregation's goals for tefillah education?; What have been their successes?; and What are their ongoing challenges?


For each case study she conducted intensive interviews, made personal observations, and collected relevant documents. She interviewed the rabbi(s), cantor, educator(s), 1-2 teachers, 1-2 parents, and 1-2 students. In addition, she recorded and transcribed each interview for further examination. She also observed the following events: Friday night services, Saturday morning services, religious school classes, religious school services, family education programs, and special tefillah program(s), where applicable. Finally, she collected anything that would help her better understand tefillah education in the congregation: the religious school handbook; educational mission/vision statements; congregational flyers and newsletters; and educational materials such as books, workbooks, and curricula guides.


"From this research, I have found that, despite the challenges, it is possible to succeed at synagogue-based tefillah education for youth in the 21st century, if we are willing to be realistic about and more specific with our goals. We must be clear about how we define “success.” Temple Sinai succeeds in educating its students for belief, Kehillat Beth Israel succeeds in educating its students for behavior, and Bayside Reconstructionist Synagogue succeeds in educating its students for a sense of belonging. Due to time limitations in supplementary Jewish education, it is impossible to do everything; therefore, synagogue leaders must determine their goals—for Jewish education in general, but also for tefillah education in particular.


For hundreds of years Jews have recognized the tensions inherent in educating for the three main dimensions of Jewish life, however one identifies them: God, Torah, Israel; Torah, Avodah, G'milut Chasadim; Believing, Behaving, Belonging. All these areas of Jewish life are essential for the community as a whole, but it is difficult to place equal emphasis on all three in a supplementary school setting. Most synagogues naturally focus more on one area than the others, whether intentionally or not. The congregations I studied did include all three areas of tefillah education in their educational systems, but they weighted the three areas differently and with clear intentionality.


The decision to weigh one area of tefillah education more heavily than the others is best determined by the following question: “In our congregation, what do we see as the purpose of prayer?” If the answer to this question is primarily affective or “spiritual” (“We pray in order to feel a certain way; we pray in order to enhance our connection with God”), it is best to focus the congregation's tefillah education on belief/kavanna. If the answer is primarily halachic (“We pray because God commanded us to pray in a particular way”), it is best to focus tefillah education on behavior/keva. If the answer is community-based (“We pray to strengthen the community and to connect with each other and the Jewish people”), it is best to focus tefillah education on belonging. When a synagogue community is honest about how it views prayer, its leaders will be better able to develop a clear vision for tefillah education in its congregational school."

Updated: Mar. 08, 2011