Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Hawthorne Effect and Evaluating Davening

An interesting question was raised out of a recent post - whether it is easier to daven with people around or by one's self?

There are clearly advantages and disadvantages to each and I will not weigh in on either side except to share that I think the rabbis of old wanted there to be a tension; you can decide for yourself, or perhaps your already have.  But I wanted to begin to push our intellectual comfort zone a bit more (isn't that the point of this blog?) to see how our educational institutions teach people about this tension between public and private prayer.

The Hawthorne effect describes how people react to changes in their environment – particularly to the knowledge that they are being paid attention to. Turn up the lights in the factory and productivity goes up. Turn them down and productivity goes up (a nod to Seth Godin for recently sharing this concept).

Pretty much all of school prayer is with the proverbial lights on and teachers watching - and rarely are the results significant (I may have been persuaded that TV camera lights might make difference after seeing the footage of the Beren Academy davening).  The inverse of this theory is not true either - neglecting to coach tefilla will not develop spiritual souls.  So there is obviously a balance of sometimes tuning up the attention and other times easing back - which I think is probably the pedagogical approach of most tefilla teachers.  However, when it comes to evaluating the success of said pedagogy there seems to be an absence of criteria and literature to share and criticize.  Most Jewish Day Schools have tefilla on a regular basis and prayer is a conceptual part of most supplementary schools (formerly called Hebrew school) curriculum - but how are they being evaluated and are the results positive?

Perhaps we need to shine light on the administrators, paying attention to see if tefilla productivity will go up.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Davening Advice From the Yeshiva World

In my snooping (or surfing) around the web, I have come across some pretty interesting tefilla related stuff.  Most recently I re-discovered The Yeshiva World, which apparently functions as a news wire.  More interesting is that they have a "coffee room" that allows for readers to post issues and have an exchange of ideas that have observed in other talkback forums.

In the Tefilla/Davening forum, readers have raised the following interesting topics (just to give you a sampling if you are weary to make the jump):

  • Cellphones in Shul
  • Good Kedusha Tunes
  • Davening at Fast Minyanim
  • Shul in Louisville, Kentucky
  • Non-slip Taleisim
  • "Prayer" for jobless people
and my personal favorite with 91 talkbacks:
  • Something I noticed a lot of people do because they probably don't know this
But the topic of today's post is titled "A problem with tefillah":
my problem is that i find it EXTREMELY difficult to daven well. i am always in a rush to get out to work in the morning, and my tefilla is often lip service. and it pains me greatly. ive tried the makom kavua, ive tried concentrating on one small part of davening, and i even tried getting myself an interliner siddur so that i can read the translations of the words. nothing seems to help. and i know, especially in this time period of my life, that i need my teffilos. everyone always says that teffila is a direct connection to Hashem. the thing is, i dont feel in any way that my connection with Hashem is suffering. i talk to Him all the time. and i have a much easier time with saying tehillim then i do with davening. i guess because i dont know the words of tehillim and i HAVE to look inside and concentrate on what im saying. but i REALLY want to improve my daily davening. any suggestions?
I like the honesty of the post and the maturity of the person who seems to be undergoing a process and a struggle.  And the readers responded with some sincere suggestions and a calm debate whether it is better or easier to pray with other people watching or by oneself. 

This comment also stood out:
This always works: Leave time before Shemonah Esrei for 2 minutes to completely empty your head and medidate on the fact that you are literally standing in front of G-d to ask Him for your daily needs and those of the Klal.

Do we teach this concept to our students?  Or provide for a quiet, less rushed moment to reflect before we shuffle and shuckle?  Again I think one of the challenges for educators is that the techniques of meditation are not often taught and sometimes has a bit of hippy dippy stigma to it that pushes many mainstreamers away from trying it.  If davening is a skill that can me taught to the masses, are we really succeeding in imparting the proper tools and desire to practice when they are out of school?  How do you measure this? We are looking for a set of standards.  

Monday, February 27, 2012

Where Do You Sit?

I went to a presentation at work the other day and noticed that, as usual, the first two rows of the room did not fill up. Isn't it always that way.   There are some teachers or managers that count out the exact number of seats to make sure that every seat gets filled up or to prevent a feeling of an empty audience or distance from the presenter.  I even know of an educator that once removed the first two rows of chairs from his minyan and guess what happened?  The third and fourth rows were empty at the start of the tefilla.

Now I know that people like to sit in the back often so that they can chit chat, or play freely with their phones, or just to be out of the eye line of fire from their boss, but the same elements are at play in any shul.  Some people just sit in the back because it is cool.

Humans are creatures of habit and often go to sit in the same spot that they previously sat in.  A מקום קבוע (a fixed spot) is a serious issue for many people with regard to tefilla, (the Talmud discusses advantages in Brachot 6b) and often causes people to affix one place and not change it.  But why don't most people choose their place in the front?  On the High Holidays, I am pretty sure these seats cost just as much as the ones in the back, even if they are the last to go.

But seriously, does where you sit have any impact on your actual experience?

I think it does.  One advice column suggests that you can eliminate 90% of classroom distractions by sitting in the first row.  There even is a 2005 study that claims that students that sit in the front of the class have a higher GPA. Could this statistic apply to daveners? Do people in the front of the shul have a better tefilla experience than those in the back?  I have no data to back this up - but I am seeking anecdotal resources that explore if there is a place within a structure that triggers a more positive or negative experience.

One final anecdote:  A few months ago I was visiting my brother's shul and on our way out we bumped into a neighbor.  My brother introduced me and commented how this guy had recently changed his seat in shul.  He replied, "Yeah, I realized that I was spending more time talking than doing anything else so I figured if I was coming, I should probably give it more of an effort or stop coming." This neighbor had moved his sit to the first row, directly in front of the rabbi!  I asked how it was going 'up there' and remarked, "I really feel a difference".

Sunday, February 26, 2012

How Do You Know if Prayer is Working?

Isn't that the question?

When learning something new - a hobby or sport, isn't it normal to ask the instructor, "Is this the right way to do it?"  A coach's job is to be there for instructional purposes, to talk strategy and dole out advice to improve performance.  Most of the time there is a measurable result that lets you know if the act is accomplished or if it failed.  For example, shooting a basketball, if the ball goes in you have clearly succeeded - unless you don't get another basket in the rest of the practice.

Shouldn't the same approach work for tefilla?  Do your students ask you this question?  When was the last time someone asked you for advice on improving your kavanah (intention or direction in prayer?

Most of the advice I have gleaned on this topic comes from books and I only have had rare opportunities to speak to master davener about their tips and secrets.  Who can answer this question? I fear not me - but I feel it is worthwhile to ask.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Pray Yourself to a Healthier Life

You may have heard this already, but statistics are trending that the more religious you are (often defined as attending a religious service) the happier and healthier you will be.

Check out this report ripped from the Huffington Post "Very Religious People Score Higher in Health Self-Evaluations, According to Study" by Jaweed Kaleem.

The survey, conducted between January 2, 2010 and December 30, 2011, also broke down responses by religion, and found that Jewish interviewees scored higher in health scores compared to other religious groups when comparisons were made between people in the same categories of religiosity.

Note the video at the bottom on "The Role of Prayer in a Patient's Healing".  Perhaps this is why we are pressuring kids to pray even if we aren't sure that they will connect spiritually; at least they'll be healthier for their efforts!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

School Prayer

Last week, I visited/participated in tefillot at high school in Los Angeles.  Oh, what a way to start your day!  Perhaps it is just an impossible task to harness the energy of a teenager at 7:45 in the morning, especially when they don't want to daven.

I am curious - and would love feed back from high school teachers - if your school has one, are you obligated to go to morning minyan?  Is it part of your compensation package or job description?  Do you enjoy it and find it transcendental?

Perhaps this post is just a venting of my frustration but I must point out that something is just not working in this school.  Most of the kids were not into it and the measure for this statement was the level of participation.  Cleverly, the school recites the entire Shema aloud which I think shows both its theological importance and teaches proper pronunciation (one person told it me it was also because they students usually had to wait for the rabbi to finish which led to a lot of chit chat). It was the teachers who were mostly chanting the tefilla, and I noticed that barely about half of the students were moving their lips, let alone saying it aloud.

The atmosphere of the tefilla was such that one teacher stood in the center of the room near the Torah table, frowning most of the time. Seemingly his job there was to record who was on time or late, and to wake up or refocus those that were drifting away.  He worked the room, ambling over to awaken a few sleepy heads and silence a few conversations (I saw one kid hide his iphone as this teacher drew close).  This was the model of tefilla management that I remembered but thought had disappeared. Are there schools that have empowered their students to daven?   In the coming days I will be reviewing one project by a community day school that davens as a community twice a month and has successfully changed the culture of prayer.

As for my experience in Los Angeles,  I am praying that the next time I visit this school something, anything would be different in the davening atmosphere.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Prayer Without the Body

I spend a lot of time thinking about tefilla - and not just when I am trying to daven.  In the past few months, I have written about what I feel is need to teach students how to meditate and practice what it means to focus mindfulness in prayer.  Some of you have written to me about incorporating yoga into tefillot or the tefilla curriculum and I have heard your advice.

Recently I went to a session by Andrew Hahn, who is apparently known as the Kirtan Rabbi (this is his bio from the LimmudLA website where I met him: one of a new breed of artist-rabbis whose joyful music and teachings address the deepest longings of the 21st century. He holds a PhD from JTS and ordination from HUC-JIR. A long time martial arts instructor, he also teaches a Jewish form of Tai Chi. Hahn tours the country offering concerts, workshops, and Shabbatonim.).  I had a wonderful experience working and speaking with Andrew and hope to interview him for this blog.

What really stood out from our conversation - and his session on "Fear and the Amygdala" - was how disembodied our tefilla is today.  Think about how you use your bodies when you pray.   You might bow a few times, or kiss your tzizit, and some of you may shuckle (sway), but think about it in a more broad perspective, most of us are not so aware of our bodies when we daven.  One result of this approach is that the emphasis on the prayer experience is about the intellect and the mind, and not the body.  Such an approach would explain perhaps why so many people are bored (for they my seek a more emotionally charged outlet) and why others (who do connect intellectually) bring books to read while in synagogue.

Hebrew and Day Schools are producing disembodied daveners (Read more about embodied cognition here, as it pertains to literary theory). I hope to develop over the coming weeks my thesis how the current approaches and traditions for teaching davening are failing in schools and how and educators and reapproach this difficult and sacred topic by embracing a mind/body pedagogy.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Finding Your Voice in Your Tefilla

Rabbi Kenneth Brander, Dean of the Center for the Jewish Future at YU, gave a class last week on "Tefillah - Preparation, Redemption, and Transformation".  I recommend this twenty minute listen because I think he draws a worthwhile parallel between Shabbat and Tefilla.

For many educators, Shabbat is both the most special time and concept to engage students to their Jewish identity.  R Brander elaborates on several dimensions - pointing to the songs sung on Shabbat and halachot involved in their preparations.  He raises honest points - that "it is hard to connect in Tefilla"  and shares a personal tragedy and how tefilla helped him through such a challenge. Further he stresses the need to make the special connection between prayer and the structure of  Shabbat which "re-calibrates our lives and purpose".  Tefilla, he argues, has a cosmic redemptive moment that is similar to Shabbat - I feel this way but I am not sure that my students do.

Finally, R. Brander ends the shuir speaking about finding one's own voice in tefilla - and I think this is the most powerful part of the lesson.  How can we address the challenge to allow each student to find their own individual voice "within the symphony we create with HaKadosh Baruch Hu".  He warns against imitation but I fear that this is often our standard pedagogical approach.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

To Hop Shuls or Not to Hop?

I once heard a rabbi speak disparagingly against the Internet saying that one does not discover something "accidentally" as one would flipping the pages of the Times.  Well, this post will prove him wrong and validates the literally hours I spend tangentially following ideas and leads.

Jewcy apparently has a Religion and Beliefs column titled "Shul Hopping" by Joe Winkler, a shrewd and skeptical writer.  This article shares his concerned voice about davening in a person's home, what he calls a "DIY (do it yourself) Prayer Party.

I also enjoyed a previous installment of Shul Hopping "Synagogues of the Bourgeois: with the following honest reflection:

What emerged as clear is that apparently my soul yearns for Romantic prayer, a singsong prayer that taps into the essence of my being. I chafe at the hint of formality or rigidity, but I must realize that we each tap into different aspects of prayer. If God represents both our Father and our King, then part of prayer entails acting as if we stand before a king. You do not yell, even in supplication, at a King. You do not dress down, or engage in idle chatter, or scrimp on the expenses of a sanctuary for a King. You act with decorum; you follow the prescribed guidelines, and feel the majesty of the King of Kings. For me, though I tend to relate to God as a father, why should I pass judgment upon those who also feel his august presence? But the biases, I realized, bore deeper than this.

And this amusing comment:

I noticed that despite the differences between Orthodox and Conservative shuls, certain customs or characteristics persist. For some reason, no matter the religious venue, no one sits in the front row. People, as they stagger in, mostly sit in the back and next to the exit. We fear the front of shuls the same way we fear the front of an assembly in school, or the front of the classroom. Additionally, I felt shocked to find out that we eat the same Kiddush food. The same Kiddush food winds itself through Chasidic, to Modern Orthodox, to Conservative shuls: egg salad, chopped liver, pound cake, tuna salad, marble cake, more marble cake, Tam Tam-like crackers, seven layer cake, jelly cookies, gefilte fish, and tiny cups half full of bad kosher grape juice or wine. Also, one bottle of cheap alcohol. Strangely, I assumed, if the Conservative denomination can make changes in Jewish Law, can they not make changes to Kiddush? Is this uniformity of Kiddush the manipulations of a secret society, an unspoken rule or custom? Also, and I cannot believe this shocks me, but reading from the Torah takes time and is mostly boring everywhere, no matter the type of synagogue.
I hope the Joe will continue to wander and would love to see his review of my shul.  As always, comments are welcome.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Guest Post: Is Music Transcendental?

The Transcendental Power of Music
Remembering Harry Chapin, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Debbie Friedman, their lives and their music, enables us to become better human beings.
By Rabbi Yehoshua Looks / Jewish World blogger  Published 09:22 12.02.12

Music can be transcendental and it enables us to become better human beings.

We sing our prayer, we sing around our Shabbat and holiday tables, and our first communal activity when leaving Egypt was to sing after G-d performed the miracle of parting the sea. There is a dispute between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Nechemyah in the Talmud, fifth chapter of Tractate Sotah, concerning whether Moses initiated the song and the people repeated line by line, or whether it was sung in unison. We are left with a question: Do we draw and maintain our inspiration from our leaders or form them as a community?
I was a child of the sixties. There were causes to believe in, causes to fight for – like civil rights – and causes to fight against – like the Vietnam War. There were leaders we believed in: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy – especially Bobby – all assassinated, depriving a generation of its potential greatness.

From a young age, next to a love of classical music (especially opera), the popular music that spoke to me was folk. Harry Chapin, Phil Ochs, and Peter, Paul and Mary all reflected the shifting moods and priorities of the times. They weaved the social conscience of our youth into melodies that we could sing along with. We dropped in along the concert trail with our friends, then with our wives, and then with our children. Harry Chapin moved us with stories of ordinary people, urging us all to adopt the causes he believed in, particularly hunger in America. After his tragic death at age 38, his widow, Sandy, said that "Harry was supporting 17 relatives, 14 associations, 7 foundations and 82 charities. Harry wasn't interested in saving money. He always said, “Money is for people,” so he gave it away."

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach spoke to a generation of Jews through his stories and his music. Rav Shlomo was a complex individual and there were troubling aspects to his life, but his empathy for humanity and his generosity were undeniable; so much so that despite all the money he made from concerts during his lifetime, he died virtually penniless.

This past week marked the first yahrtzeit of Debbie Friedman. She came out of the Jewish summer camp movement, drawing inspiration from folk music, combining it with Jewish texts. Like Rav Shlomo, her music has become a liturgy unto itself, crossing denominational lines.

Last week, at a memorial concert in New York City, Cheryl Friedman remembered her sister: “Debbie was gifted beyond measure. But, first she was a good person. She gave and gave selflessly, often to her own detriment, for the enrichment of our People and Judaism… Her consistent message brought people together from every corner of the Jewish world and beyond. We respond to a messenger who lives what she speaks – what she sings. That is why Debbie’s impact was so profound. Her values were reflected in her music – and in her life.”

Where are the Harrys, Rav Shlomos and Debbies of today? We remember them through their music and are transported to another place. Their words are words of hope and love. Let us not lose sight of their message, the positive in their lives, and their melodies. May they continue to touch our hearts and minds, inspiring us to leave the world a better place, as they did.

Shirah (singing) is referred to ten times in the Bible. All of them are times of great emotion. How are we to express our joy, happiness, sadness and thanksgiving if not in song? Shirah brings us closer to G-d. It makes us like the angels. Nine songs have been sung. The tenth, Shir HaGeulah, the song of redemption, is referred to by the prophet Isaiah (26:1), "In that day shall this song be sung in the land of Judah..." I await that day with great anticipation.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is Managing Director of HaOhel Institutions in Jerusalem, now launching a new venture, Threshold, fostering Jewish Educational Entrepreneurship.

Song as Prayer: Shed their Tears

A follower of the blog suggested this Yael Meyer song "She Their Tears" as a modern tefilla.

Here are the lyrics:

As I walk above the pavement
I can feel you walking with me carrying me
And I hear above the silence all these voices screaming loudly at my ear
Shed their fear
Shed their fear on me
Living in a world of lies is not
amongst the holy sites I site from here
Grant me strength to dissipate the dark that
haunts and pierces deeply like a spear
Shed their fear
Shed their fear on me
As I walk above the pavement
I can feel you walking with me carrying me
And I hear above the silence
All these voices screaming loudly at my ear

Monday, February 6, 2012

Go Daven at the Super Bowl?

Have you ever searched for a place to daven when travelling?  Or googled the name of a city and synagogue to find a minyan starting time, perhaps to say kaddish?  The website GoDaven with its slogan "minyanim everywhere", and revamped from when I last surfed it many years ago, offers a database of  davening information for the Orthodox travelling.  Not sure what parameters qualify for orthodox, but I will let the controversy brew there for itself.

There was also advertising for a "temporary minyan" (now past) at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana, i.e. at the Super Bowl. If you are planning to be there, "be prompt" the site warns, it will be 10 minutes after the half ends.  Can anyone report on the attendance there?  How was the kavana?  Mazal tov to the Giants.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Positive Psychology and Prayer

This is a wonderfully delivered TED lecture from Shawn Achor on "The Happy Secret to Better Work" - and mentions near the end about the ability to meditate, which made me think of tefilla.  Shavua tov!