Tefilla Literacy vs. Tefilla Inspiration: Reevaluating our goals for Tefilla Education

By Daniel Rose

When I say the words “tefilla education” what is your visceral instinctive response? Fear and trepidation? Fatigue and resignation? Or excitement and passion for the educational opportunities and potential? I would venture that all these reactions are common among those educators responsible for any program of tefilla education at school, synagogue or camp. In the following four-part series, I would like to present some food for thought and perhaps the platform for new approaches to tefilla education.

Setting the goal posts

First let’s decide what our educational goals and vision for tefilla education is. Nicole Michelle Greninger (2010) in her research discovered three possible core goals present in a program of tefilla education. She suggested that any given program of tefillah education will probably have one of the three at its core. She terms them “Believing, Behaving, and Belonging.”

Believing as the core value of a tefillah education program is where keva (tefillah skills mastery, or “tefillah literacy”) are sacrificed in order to focus on kavannah (emotional and spiritual meaning-making).

Behaving is the contrasting value of tefillah literacy – where the end goal is that students graduate the system with competency in the skills of tefilla – understanding of the matbe’a tefillah (structure), the choreography of tefillah (ritual), the halakhot of tefillah (laws), and comfort with reading the words of the liturgy, etc. While this is a skill set, it is also accompanied with a belief system, what Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz describes as “educating a sense of obligation” (2010). This is all the keva of tefillah.

Greninger’s third core value of tefillah education is “belonging” where building community and creating a sense of belonging is the ultimate goal. This system focuses on values such as how to behave in the sanctuary, how to treat others in the community, and how to feel connected to the larger congregation (perhaps we should call this kehillah, to correspond with kavannah and keva). While this third value, kehillah, is probably always present to some extent in any program of tefilla education, we can probably categorize any given day school tefillah program as focused largely on kavannah or keva.

What is the reality at the chalkface?

There is a paucity of research on tefillah education. However, based on anecdotal evidence from both personal and secondary experience, I believe the following is a useful (albeit highly generalized) overview of what is happening in schools, camp and synagogues across the world.

Elementary school age

This is by far the most positive stage of tefillah education where children are on the whole engaged and connected to the tefillah experience (although it is fair to say that as the child continues on their path towards adolescence this becomes less and less the case). The more traditional the school and parent community, the more the focus is on tefillah literacy and skills acquisition, preparing students for socialization into the parent community and the adult prayer service. Singing is often central to tefillah in elementary grades, which both makes the experience pleasurable for the students (who like to sing) and also help to achieve familiarity with the words of the liturgy, but without either a cognitive or emotional connection to the meaning behind the words (Wachs, 2009; Golombek, 2011). It can be argued, however, that song encourages learning the words by rote without actually encouraging an improvement in reading skills, and therefore some schools will also use tefillah as an opportunity for reading practice, at the expense of enjoyable singing (Goldberg, 2014). In the early grades, children will also learn the choreography of tefillah, and begin to become acquainted with the structure of the siddur and the tefillah service.

Middle school age

Where regular tefillah is still found for this age cohort the tefillah experience will more than likely be closer in nature to the parent community, both in terms of the physical setup of the tefilla space and the liturgy chosen (for example those prayers that require a quorum). This also gives the students their first exposure to tefillah role models – teachers and counsellors who model their own commitment and engagement in tefillah (Goldmintz, 2010). However, services for this age are often a challenging educational environment, where young teens are no longer as compliant and cooperative as they were in their elementary grades, especially if they feel they are being asked to engage in an activity that lacks meaning for them (during a developmental stage where they are engaged in identity formation). This often leads to rebellion against the norms of tefillah to varying degrees (Golombek, 2011).

High school age

The more traditional the school, the more likely that the tefillah experience intends to replicate that of the parental community. More innovative programs provide creative tefillah opportunities, allowing the students the choice to participate in non-conventional tefillah services (Wachs, 2012), others will implement a tefillah curriculum in the classroom to supplement and enrich the prayer services in the school, but the majority will not invest precious instructional hours on tefillah (Sigel, 2016). Tefillah role models become more important during this stage, but these will often function passively, modeling their tefillah engagement during the service, rather than engaging students in discussion or other pedagogic activities (Goldmintz, 2010).

Reevaluating goals and practice

I once had a conversation with a tefillah education specialist that made a lasting impression on me. For this educator, tefillah literacy was the ultimate, and perhaps only, goal of his program – he readily acknowledged that the only important thing was that his students would have the skills to be able to be in synagogue and say kaddish for their parents when the time came. Another educator told me that he is not scared to be the most boring teacher in the school if it means his students graduate with the Jewish life skills they need, including how to navigate a siddur and feel comfortable in a synagogue service.

There is no doubt that these goals are essential for Jewish continuity. But can we hope for more? I would argue that if we do not provide opportunities for meaningful connection to tefillah, both spiritual/emotional, and intellectual, then it is likely the next time we see our graduates in a tefillah service will be when they need to say kaddish.

If we are to create meaningful tefilla experiences for older students, we must avoid the trap of focusing only on tefilla literacy, while ignoring tefilla inspiration in our tefilla education. And this must happen from the earliest age of tefilla education, and continue throughout. But what would a program of tefilla education built on these goals look like? I plan to explore this in the next three installments in this series.


Goldberg, S. (2014). Where’s God?: Educating children for tefillah through preparation, prayer, and puestions. In, From Within the Tent: The Weekday Prayers Essays from the Rabbis and Professors of Yeshiva University. Jerusalem: Maggid Books

Goldmintz, J. (2010). Helping students find their own voice in tefillah: A conceptual framework for teachers. Retrieved from https://www.lookstein.org/professional-dev/helping-students-find-voice-tefillahh-conceptual-framework-teachers/.

Golombek, E. (2011). Engaging souls: Bringing elementary tefillah to life. Retrieved from https://www.lookstein.org/professional-dev/engaging-souls-bringing-elementary-tefillahh-life/.

Greninger, N. M. (2010). Believing, behaving, belonging: Tefillahh education in the 21stcentury. Journal of Jewish Education (76)4.

Sigel, D. (2016). Prayer and adolescence: Can formal instruction make a difference?, Religious Education (111)2.

Wachs, S. P. (2009). Towards a theory of practice: Conducting services for and with children and teens in Jewish day schools. New York: Solomon Schechter Day School Association.

Wachs, S. P. (2012). Teenagers, Spirituality and Prayer in the Jewish Community Secondary Day School. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Dr. Daniel Rose was the Director of Educational Projects at Koren Publishers, where he edited and contributed to the Koren Magerman Educational Siddur Series.

This article is excerpted from a more comprehensive one which appears in Jewish Educational Leadership 16:1.

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I think you are referring to a familiarity with ritual practice when you use the word literacy. My use of tefillah literacy (to which I think you may be referring) is in the context of a knowledge of the meaning of tefillah, as literacy applies to understanding language, not just to speaking the language. You seem to be referring to the rituals of prayer and a much narrower definition of literacy. This is not what I had in mind when I wrote about tefillah education (Tefillah and Adolescence…) and spoke about the need for a tefillah literacy. Knowledge and understanding where what I had in mind.

    Deena Sigel, Ed. D.

  • I have used the term literacy in it’s widest sense as in gaining “Competence or knowledge in a specified area” (Oxford English Dictionary), and my intent was not to refer just to language, but to all associated tefilla skills, including ritual competency. It could be argued that tefilla literacy could include language skills, such as reading and comprehension of the tefilla text, as you suggest, but this would not necessarily achieve the desired connection-building and meaning-making that I am calling for (which is why I believe the inclusion of a translation in a siddur is not enough to achieve these aims).

  • I am always disappointed when I read articles about Tefila Education because they rarely reference one successful Tefila education program; i.e the Beurei Hatefila course that was taught at Maimonides School, Brookline, MA by Rabbi Isaiah Wohlgemuth, z”l, a course of study that was approved and encouraged by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, z”l. On what basis am I naming it a successful Tefila education program? Seek out and ask any Maimonides alumnus who sat in Rabbi Wohlgemuth’s class and he will tell you why.

    If I had to summarize the goal of the class it would be to study the Siddur in the same way as we study the Gemara, Chumash and Navi; as a text. Why is that simple method of study used in the other Jewish disciplines but is not viewed as being a valid method of study for Tefila?

    For anyone who is unaware of the content of Rabbi Wohlgemuth’s course, I refer you to the book that was published in the name of Rabbi Wohlgemuth, A Guide To Jewish Prayer, that was recently republished by Maimonides School, with extensive footnotes. If you wish to purchase a copy, e-mail Mike Rosenberg at Maimonides School; mike@maimonides.org

    In my opinion, the book provides a roadmap for teachers to follow in creating a Tefila curriculum.

  • We really value the article written by Dr. Daniel Rose. He did an excellent job at delineating possible goals for tefilah education and addressed how prioritizing these goals is of tremendous importance in facing the challenges of tefilah education. We would add, based on our work at PCJE (The Pardes Center for Jewish Educators) over the past few years, that the importance of tefilah leaders as change agents and inspiring role models cannot be underestimated. Currently many schools have dispassionate teachers leading tefilah. To date there is no comprehensive program offering intensive training for tefilah educators in camp or school settings. As Dr. Rose pointed out, there is a paucity of research to guide us. Without professionalizing the field it will be difficult to make serious progress toward achieving our goals.
    We look forward to reading the next three installments and learning how they can inform our work as we move ahead.
    Rabbi Zvi Hirshfield and Dr. Susan Wall
    PCJE Tefilah Initiative

    • Dr. Wall correctly frames the problem behind the inability of Jewish schools to develop Tefila curriculums when she writes: “To date there is no comprehensive program offering intensive training for tefilah educators in camp or school settings.” In other words, if students preparing to be rabbis or teachers are not provided courses in Tefila, how can we expect them to teach courses in Tefila?

      Perhaps if synagogues and schools refused to hire rabbis and teachers who have not studied Tefila, the Rabbinic seminaries would then begin teaching those courses.

      You may be curious to know why Rabbinic seminaries do not provide courses in Tefila education, so let me share with you what I was told, at different times, by a Rosh Yeshiva, a day school principal and a pulpit Rabbi-to properly teach Tefila, you have to reveal facts about Tefila that the community does not need to know. What are those facts? That the Tefilot that we recite today are not quite the same as the Tefilot our ancestors recited. Here are some examples: those who followed Minhag Eretz Yisroel recited a version of Shemona Esrei that included only eighteen Brachot. They combined Es Tzemach Dovid with Boneh Yerushalayim. Rashi did not recite Yismach Moshe as the middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei during Shabbos Shacharis. He recited Ata Bachartanu, the same Bracha that is recited as the middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei on Yom Tov. And should you find yourself in the Great Synagogue in Rome on a Friday night, it is likely that you will not recognize the first Bracha of Kriyas Shema, the third Bracha of Kriyas Shema and the middle Bracha of Shemona Esrei that they recite. You may harbor doubts as to their authenticity so might I suggest that you open the same pages in the Siddur of Rav Sa’Adiya Gaon, available at http://www.hebrewbooks.org.

      And allow me to add one more that I just stumbled upon this past Shabbat. Rashi would not open Hallel on Rosh Chodesh with the Bracha of Likro Es Ha’Hallel. He would recite the Bracha portion of Baruch Sh’Amar. The significance of this find is that it may help solve the mystery of how Baruch Sh’Amar, a Bracha not found in the Gemara but which is clearly a re-working of Birchat Ha’Shir,, came to open Pseukei D’Zimra.

  • Thank you both so much for your comment and kind words. I couldn’t agree with you more, and the impact of role modeling in general is one of particular interest to me, and was the subject of my doctoral research. I have thus dedicated the third in the series of these articles to scratching the surface of this area of tefilla education – the tefilla educator as a role model. I very much look forward to your feedback on it, and perhaps to continuing the conversation with you both after that.

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