By Louise Szczerb

At the start of the summer vacation, twenty four teachers, spanning grades 2-12, across denominations and from throughout the U.S., participated in the Aleinu Leshabe’ach II: Conference on Tefilah in Jewish Day Schools. The five-day conference, run by the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators (PCJE) with support from the AVI CHAI Foundation, aimed to work with teachers on the front lines who are seeking ways to make tefilah (prayer) more meaningful in their schools.

“In working with our PCJE graduates who are teaching in Jewish day schools throughout North America, we have learned the extent to which tefilah is  incredibly problematic within schools – across grades and across denominations,” stated Dr. Susan Wall, co-Director of the conference. “We understood that the solution had to start with teachers who were committed to moving from crisis to opportunity, hence our decision to forge ahead with a second conference. We couldn’t have been more delighted with the outcome/the readiness of these teachers to work hard and go deeply. “

During the conference, teachers examined their own connections to tefilah and their challenges in facilitating tefilah for their students. Self-reflection continued throughout the program, something that teachers regretted not having time to do during the year.

Although most schools are concerned with building tefilah skills and basic knowledge (such as navigating the sidur (prayer book), encouraging correct reading of prayers, etc.), the program pushed participants to explore other approaches that would more likely inspire and give prayer meaning for the students in the long run. These included using tefilah to cultivate emotional dispositions and character development, to connect to God and to build community, past, present and future.

The last day of the program was devoted to “taking it home” and ensuring that participants had clear next steps they could take back to their schools. Everyone involved left with a belief that things could be different regarding tefilah in schools.

One of the participating teachers remarked, “It is amazing how much I feel I changed as a pray-er myself this week. The different techniques we learned had an impact on me that give me great hope it can do the same for our students.”

Rabbi Zvi Hirschfield, co-Director of the conference said, “We needn’t continue to sweep this most challenging aspect of our day school experience under the carpet. We can work toward developing a field, preparing educators for whom tefilah is an expertise, and creating a framework that will allow students to actually find meaning in prayer. It will not happen overnight, but it can and will happen.”

The Pardes Center for Jewish Educators is working to energize, professionalize and transform the status quo and create a field of tefilah education. For more information contact Dr. Susan Wall at [email protected].