In 2015 Rabbi Ariel Tal completed his training as a Personal Life Coach through Da’at Utevuna Institute in Rechovot, Israel. He is the founder and director of The Tefilla Project which was founded based on his experience and expertise as both an educator and a Personal Life Coach.
Tefilla in schools is a challenging experience for many educators and students alike. It’s a reality that we all face. I would like to break down some of the challenges and give suggestions for creative responses that we, as educators, can implement to help enhance the Tefilla experience for our students.
When I was an educator in a Jewish Day School in Toronto, Canada, I was given the task of leading the Tefilla for grades 6, 7 & 8. My supervisor made it very clear that the Tefilla was not nearly at the standard they desired. I realized that the system was not working. We were trying to enforce the classic Synagogue system of Tefilla for students that clearly were unengaged and uninspired. I incorporated my Tefilla system of shortening the Tefilla by half and saying the entire Tefilla out loud, and in a few weeks the level of Tefilla had improved significantly. Most importantly, I managed to change the entire culture of Tefilla, making it important again! This experience gave me the incentive to design The Tefilla Project.
I would like to focus on two main challenges in Tefilla, and some ways we can creatively respond to them, as educators.
What are the challenges?
Language: There is a difference between the spoken Hebrew language and Biblical Hebrew language. Any teacher who teaches Tanach knows this well. From a purely linguistic perspective, Tefilla is a collection of pesukim from the Tanach, with tailor-made prayers and blessings inserted as segues. That is a very high level of Hebrew and the words used are difficult to understand even for native Israeli Hebrew speakers, not to mention students in the Diaspora. How can we expect our students to be immersed in the Tefilla experience when they have little to no understanding of the words they are saying?
Boring: Is Tefilla really boring? For many, the answer is a resounding “yes”. The current Tefilla model many schools implement has a lot of “dead time”. In other words, saying the Tefillot quietly to themselves forces students to be quiet. How many times have we seen educators walk around the room and tell students to be quiet during davening? This has always been confusing to me, since Tefilla is Avoda Shebalev, the work of the heart, yet the main function of Tefilla is saying the words of the berachot and pesukim in the Siddur. Students who are bored and unengaged, generally turn to acting out.
Creative Solutions - Principles of Tefilla Enagagement
Here are two basic elements that create a positive student engagement model for Tefilla:
- Interactive: Out loud!
- Less is more: Gradual system of Tefilla engagement
Read it out loud! Individual reading as part of Tefilla
I am not suggesting that Tefilla should be said out loud together as a group, necessarily. I believe there is a strong merit in handing out individual reading passages to students as part of the flow of Tefilla, while the others say the same Tefilla to themselves. This is not a system I developed, it’s the classic Sephardi system of Tefillot in nearly any Sephardi shul.
If Tefilla is going to be an important part of the students’ day, then it must be relevant. Chazal teach us that Tefilla is “Avoda Shebalev”, or the work of the heart. However, Tefilla on a mechanical level is “Avoda Shebapeh”, or the work of the mouth. The mechanics of Tefilla are words, songs, expression, phrases, verses from the Tanach and personal or national requests. In order to engage our young generation in the art of Tefilla, we must first relate to the basic mechanics involved – get them to say it out loud! The best illustration for why this works is to close your eyes and picture your favorite Tefilla experience. For many people it was the inspirational Friday night Tefilla at the Kotel or Carlebach minyan. The key - it was said out loud.
The second element is the clear and logical Talmudic concept of “One who holds too much holds nothing at all”. It’s the Talmudic version of “Don’t bite off more than you can chew”. This is one of the fine arts of education, and Tefilla is no exception. “Less is More” in essence is about creating a gradual system of Tefilla engagement.
Rabbi Yosef Caro in his Shulchan Aruch teaches us that “It is better to say less with more kavanah than say more with less kavanah” (He wrote this in the context of Tachanun, but the concept rings true across the board). That is a concept even for adults who are regular Tefilla attendees. Positive student engagement in Tefilla is the key and it’s more important for us educators to focus on what not to do rather than what to include. Less is more!
Creative Response to Language
The two principles above will help create a more positive environment for Tefilla, but still don’t tackle the challenge regarding language and truly understanding the Tefilla. There are many organizations and individual educators who have developed high quality material in Biur Tefilla, the explanation of Tefilla. I would like to suggest an approach that is not curriculum based. Daily study: Make a point of tackling a word, concept or paragraph for 1 - 2 minutes after every Tefilla session.
These concepts which I have outlined here are simple on the face of things, yet not easily integrated into the current model of Tefilla in many schools. My challenge to all Jewish educators is - are we ready to creatively restructure the framework of Tefilla in our schools to create a more positive environment? As the famous saying goes - “If you don’t succeed, don’t try harder - try different!”
Rabbi Ariel Tal is the Founder of The Tefilla Project. You can contact Ariel by leaving a comment at the end of this article to get support for running Tefilla for your students!