Jewish Meditation in the Context of Prayer: A Case Study in an Orthodox Jewish High School

By Hillel Broder

Although students at Orthodox schools typically spend about 10% of their academic day engage in prayer, educators and social critics have only recently articulated how little curricular attention is brought to regular tefillah on a secondary tefillah. In the introduction to the Spring 2013 Hayidion, editor Barbara David introduced the evident challenge in Jewish day schools: all of the issue’s authors struggle with the fact that “prayer in school is often rote, devoid of meaning, emotionless, irrelevant to the pray-ers.” (p. 4) Chana Tanenbaum (2013) notes how only 16.4% “of all respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the event [of tefillah] is spiritually uplifting, while in contrast, 20% of the same group found participation in sports team to be fairly or extremely meaningful to their religious growth.” (p. 22)

At SAR High School, where I have taught tefillah for the past five years, the only mandated expectation is regular student attendance. Student participation, therefore, varies based on students’ interest in volunteering. And as a modern Orthodox high school, very few opportunities exist for female students to play an active role leading prayer. Thus, in the overtly ritual and minimally pedagogical space of an unexamined prayer curriculum, positive student interest is either inherited or intangible.

In response, SAR administration and faculty piloted an alternative tefillah program as part of its experiential, year-long theme of dveykut (devotional religious practice). Following the success of its experimental pilot, SAR integrated regular alternative options alongside the standard, traditional tefillah to capitalize on diverse Hebrew and siddur literacies, varied student interests and passions, and an overwhelming demand for opportunities for women’s prayer leadership. My alternative shaharit seemed to break unprecedented ground, as I was unaware of any Orthodox prayer service structured to serve the needs of mindfulness and contemplation in another Orthodox synagogue or school.

This paper presents the  findings  of  written exit surveys collected over the course of four years from students who elected to join my group for a six to eight week interval. I found that most students characterized their general relationship with tefillah as negative,  whereas  most  sought opportunities, following their meditation tefillah intensive, to integrate practices of meditation into  their  conventional tefillah and school lives. Additionally, almost  all  students who self-reported  found  the   meditation tefillah practice useful for mental health and wellbeing.

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