The aim of this qualitative study to describe teachers’ perceptions and roles in prayer education in TALI day schools in Israel, using in-depth oral interviews, written questionnaires and written materials of the schools’ network. Two educational ideologies were identified: Belonging to the Jewish collective and personal-spiritual ideology. While participants perceive the aim of Jewish education as enhancing students’ belonging to the Jewish collective, prayer education introduces a personal-spiritual aspect that was not typically a part of teachers’ discourse on Jewish education.
Prayer education embodies an important challenge in Jewish education—the challenge of moving from “knowing” to “feeling” and to “doing.” Prayer is not only a central genre of Jewish literature, but also has a ritual-behavioral component. Analyzing teachers’ approaches to prayer and prayer education in school can provide insights into the differences between teaching about Judaism and teaching how to practice Judaism. In the Israeli state religious day school network, prayer education is perceived as an obvious part of school practices and culture, but this is not the case in secular state system, where prayer education is not part of the curriculum—with the unique exception of the TALI school network.
The TALI school network defines itself as a part of the Israeli state secular educational system.
Among its goals is the desire to provide a broad Jewish background to its students. The first TALI school was established in Jerusalem in 1976. Since then TALI has become a network that includes over 200 public schools and preschools, comprising more than 10% of secular public schools in Israel. Many of the founders of the first TALI school and of the TALI network were JTS graduates who made Aliyah (immigrated) to Israel, and Israelis who were seeking a school for their own children but weren’t satisfied with the existing options. The TALI school network identified itself during its first decade as an affiliated with the Conservative Movement. TALI founders’ aspiration was to create a liberal and pluralistic alternative to the dichotomy between secular and Orthodox state education systems in Israel.
Later in the development of the TALI network, in order to appeal to the wider Israeli public, the TALI Foundation chose to de-emphasize its links to the Conservative Movement. However, TALI continues to include prayer education and the practice of prayer within the school framework, a unique dimension that TALI brings to Israeli state schools.
The choice of bringing prayer into the daily routine of state schools in Israel requires coping with language, rituals, and beliefs drawn from the religious world that are unfamiliar to most of the TALI school community. Therefore, prayer practices in the TALI educational system can serve as a test-case for teachers’ responses to ideological incongruity between school, community, and teachers. This study focuses on the case of integration of Jewish prayer in the TALI day school network in Israel, and on teachers’ roles and perceptions regarding school prayer.
The research question is: How do teachers understand the goals and educational context of prayer practices and prayer education in the TALI system?
This research follows the principles of qualitative research, using methodological triangulation of three sources of information: (a) a written questionnaire based on criteria-focused methodology, (b) interviews based on the written questionnaires using both open questions and criteria-focused methodology, and (c) an analysis of written materials and reports of the TALI network.
The study aim was to describe the perceptions and roles of TALI teachers regarding the integration of prayer in TALI schools. This description was derived from the teachers’ own interpretation of the unique reality in which they work, and from the literature in this field.
Based on this literature survey I tried to classify the various challenges of prayer education, and the various ideological points of view.
The personal-emotional dimension of prayer provides an opportunity for individual expression for the teachers and students within the framework of prayer, not necessarily depending on their personal faith in God. It also creates a space for personal exploration. Indeed, most of the teachers noted that there is a justification to encourage such a direction through “personal prayer” and meditation.
The findings of this research suggest that most of the teachers who participated in this study tend to see prayer education as an opportunity for students’ self-actualization: to seek meaning and express spirituality, and therefore they prefer that prayers will include not only the traditional liturgy but will also provide students opportunities for self-expression.
This shifted the emphasis of prayer education from ritual to spiritual. Furthermore, it made the teachers aware of their educational choices and of their capability to influence the vision of Jewish education in their schools.
When prayer was compulsory in TALI schools, the knowledge that was needed for teachers to carry out this task was essentially practical knowledge; how to pray and how to teach students to pray. The possible reaction of the teachers to that policy could be implementation or rejection, whether overt or hidden—i.e., acting without a real commitment to prayer engagement.
However, by making prayer optional rather than mandatory, teachers had to be active in defining their own relationship to prayer and exploring ways to integrate prayers into the school community. Such a situation, in which teachers’ ideologies and viewpoints had a major influence on the school’s culture, is a unique situation in the educational system, where teachers often feel they have no power to actually influence school practices. Thus, the opportunity to clarify their own stands and ideological tensions served as a powerful vehicle in teachers’ empowerment.