Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Prayer By Proxy

The idea of a 'shaliach' is common in Jewish literature; this is the notion of having someone represent you, or to literally be your 'messenger' in certain situations. In prayer, the leader is called the shaliach tzibur - the community messenger - and leads the group in communal prayer and holy repetitions that cannot be side as sole individuals.

What about hiring someone to do the praying for you? Today I read on Tablet Magazine - in "Pay to Pray" by Tamar Fox - a critique of the growing industry of services offered for those who pay people to daven on behalf of others; here is the link:

I think Fox's piece is well thought out and cites both anecdotal and textual sources to highlight her point that paying people to pray on one's behalf is a perplexing and perhaps unproductive trend (unless you are the ones profiting off of the payments). As educators, I think it is important to have in mind Fox's notion of "farmed out prayer" as a natural byproduct of a listless prayer experience. The paradox of Tefilla for many young Jewish adults is that they have internalized the message of the ritual need and great importance of prayer but struggle to actually practice the spiritual experience. The performance regularly is a disappointment but there remains a faith that someone else can deliver their prayer and achieve results that they were not worthy of reaching.

This, I believe, is the same feeling that propels many more people to go to synagogues for the High Holy Days or draws them to the Kotel. This feeling is a need that someone else can bring them higher - which again is a kosher notion to Jewish philosophy. The danger o this approach is in believing that only the shaliach has the true connection. In essence this is an issue of insiders and outsiders. Insiders feel ownership, know the rules and are familiar with the territory of the experience. Outsiders are strangers, need direction to function appropriately, and lack the terminology to fit it and figure the best way to fast track their goal is to hire (farm out to) an insider. Our goal as educators is to make our students passionate and dynamic insiders.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Looking into Their Shinny Eyes

An interesting TED came my way this week (thanks Sharon) and of course it made me think of how I teach. Benjamin Zander's Feburary 2008 speech on Music and Passion ( in which the composer aimed to convince the entire conference to love classical music.

Near the end of the lecture, he made a claim, "The music profession thinks that only 3% of the music population likes classical music; 'if only we could move it to 4% our problems would be over.' How would you walk, talk, be if only we could move it to 4%. How would you walk if you wanted everybody to love classical music but they just haven't found out about it? These are totally different worlds."

What made me connect (and share) Zander's lesson to davening was thinking about the statistical number of schoolmates who enjoy prayer and fearing that it was in the range of 15%. How can educators expand the passion for this holy practice? Is the purpose of the teacher to bump up the percentage a bit to 30% or to inspire the entire school to lifelong love of davening?

When the main goal of a Tefilla is just to "yotzei yedei hovato", to fulfill the communal obligation, there will be a natural disconnect for the inexperienced or disinterested. If a school aims to teach davening, to expand the pool of participants to include everyone, serious questions must be asked regarding the approach to this unique activity in the school schedule.

Zander knows that there can be an impact and that one can see the response in the audiences eyes. When parents and teachers look at their students davening, what do they see?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Don't Talk, Just Daven

Have you ever thought about the correlation between shuls that have signs up warning or forbidding people to talk during davening and the continued proliferation of noise?

I think there is a inverse relationship in that congregations that are quiet (and respectful) have no signs ups, whereas the ones that have to shush people or stop the Torah reading in the middle, have LOTS of signs up or notices in the shul bulletins.

What can we learn from this? I have my own conclusions.

Fasting, Praying, or Protesting

One of my personal critiques of my Jewish experience was that I felt I had inherited (or was educated towards) an immature impression of Judaism. This covered my conceptualization of Gd (long beard sitting on a throne) through to the purpose and need for substantive ritual in modern life. I finally was able to realize during college - after many conversations and scores of books read - that my conceptualization of Judaism was extremely adolescent and perhaps, before I judge Judaism and my people and perhaps check out, I should learn more to see if I really had experienced the whole gamut of information and perspectives.

Here is just a small anecdote about the extent of my immaturity. My family were regulars at a traditional Conservative Synagogue almost every Shabbat morning. After years of going to Junior Congregation and to the main minyan I really thought the purpose of public Torah reading was to catch the mistakes of the reader. Really! Who understood what was being read aloud and thus deduced that the point of everyone being quiet was to insure that the audience could catch a mistake (or in better terms, to make sure the mesoret was kept accurate week in and week out). Only years later, with a grasp of Hebrew and the fundamentals of community practices, did I learn the greater nuances and appreciation. [More on this theme later but not miss my message: the goal of an educator is to give students the ability and skills to mature into their own Jewish identities and to function and Menschlikim Adults.]

So too with fasting - I remember many a Yom Kippur listening to friends frustrated with the fasting ritual and choosing to opt out under the logic of, "I only think about food, and never about repenting!" Today is the minor fast of the 17th of Tammuz and rather then argue about whether young people should be taught how to focus on the meaningfulness of giving up food for a day (not even 24 hours), I overheard a few conversation speaking about the effect the fast is supposed to have not just on the individual, but on the communal level. Some argued for protesting government policies or injustices happening in other parts of the world and even raising awareness to issues within individual Jewish communities. Communal introspection is important and is sometimes lost in the greater talk about what is happening during the prayers of the day. As daveners, there is a lot of opportunity for personal hesbon nefesh (personal introspection) - but one of the special aspects of the 3 Weeks is that this is a time of soul-searching of the collective and I fear we have lost an element of this self-community-critique. If students are only thinking of their belly on Tisha B'Av then the teachers have not prepared them or challenged them for a communal sense of mourning and suffering and no wonder they are bored during kinot or mincha.

As for the goal of this blog, communities need to take step back and evaluate in which course their tefilot are heading and what could arouse more kavanah (concentration), rachamim (mercy), or kedusha (kedusha/holiness). The Chagim of Rosh Hashanah thru Yom Kippur are likened as the 'playoffs of praying' and need a lot of preparation so that participants are in the atmosphere and have all the tools to play. This metaphor is appropriate because the fundamentals of a championship caliber team are set in training camp, the pre-season, and the everyday playing of the game. How can a minyan recalibrate and make the need adjustments to reach their goals?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Palace or Prision

For many of my contemporaries, AJ Heschel's The Sabbath was an influential book that enhanced and explained the significance of Shabbat. (if there is someone who found this book not to be inspirational, I'd love to hear your critique).

Heschel refers to Shabbat as a 'Palace in Time' - I have often said to family members that during the LONG summer days one can measure one's attitude whether Shabbat is indeed a palace or a prison by how they react to the extended afternoon.

So too, whenever I visit a school (and for that matter a different community) and pray together, I often try to measure the attitude of the participants whether the tefilla is a palace or prison. Take this metaphor out for a spin and see what you think. What could you do to change the atmosphere?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

To Daven - The Purpose

I am addicted to davening.

Don't get me wrong. Sometimes it is boring and often I day dream and my mind wanders to the most random subconscious tasks that I have neglected to do over the last week. But I stand by what I wrote - I am addicted to davening.

Having started my day with prayers for the last 16 years, I cannot seemingly get my brain going until I have muttered, mumbled or chanted from my prayer book. Just yesterday I had to get up at 4:30 to go the airport. Although I was up and drove the car, conversed with passengers and negotiated over parking fees, I wasn't really functioning until I spent 15 minutes saying my prayers.

Post-prayer, I smiled more. I was more pleasant to people and felt more myself. My davening wasn't anything so 'special' but over time I have realized that for me, davening is a ritual that gets me ready for the day ahead, almost regardless of what I actually say. The 'almost' is the key part, because even when I am half asleep, I have highlighted in my siddur verses that will tug at me and push me to be better, to not operate like a robot, and to make this prayer slightly different then the last.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How to Teach Kids to Daven

As a parent, I have found the book "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" (1980) an amazing resource for developing new ways to communicate. Since starting to think more strategically about davening and how to evaluate success in teaching kids how to daven, I value Faber and Mazlish's insights that much more.

As adults, we presume much about the experience of prayer and how it is to be imparted to children. For those who attend a synagogue regularly, prayer behavior is modeled consistently and it is hard to judge how successful and/or uninspiring it may be for those not in tune with what is going on in people's heads and souls. If you want to teach the rules of how to move one's feet, or when to bow, then your work won't take so long. On the other hand teaching a child, old or young, to be sensitive to Gd, in touch with their inner prayers and needs, and how to maintain a perspective when good/bad things happen to good/bad people, things get VERY complicated.

I will be commenting on a few aspects of Faber and Mazlish's unintended advice to davening instructors, but will share only one for today. To listen to children you need to be sensitive to their feelings and hear their concerns. Too often parents 'know' the solution to their child's problem without giving the actual child the room or skills to prevent the situation from happening again. Especially since prayer is so ritualized and happens on a regular basis for so many students, it is incumbent on teachers to give some latitude to allow for students to address their own prayer needs. There is an obvious tension between the individual as well as traditional and more modern expressions, but isn't davening supposed to be transformational? How can you make the prayer experience in your school something that has a positive identity about it? Here's a tip, ask your students!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Welcoming Prayers and Advice on How to Pray

There is the old adage "those who can, do - those who can't, teach". As a teacher, and holder of a Masters Degree in Education I find this aphorism particularly annoying. But whenever I reflect in shul, which is often, I see that there is very little instruction on how to actually make your davening meaningful. There are plenty of texts (many of which will be reviewed in this blog) on the perfunctory steps that need to happen to effect a prayer experience and lots of equipment that is needed to give atmosphere, but very little practical advice on what to actually think about as the davening happens.

This is a forum to explore how to make prayer in general, but particularly in our schools, a more meaningful educational expression of this holy tradition. One of our first conversations will be about how to evaluate the success of these prayer sessions in schools and if there is a way to assess how the students improve and the instructor inspires and educates.