Sunday, January 20, 2013

Shaking Up Your School's Tefilla Options

The following is a school letter -shared by a loyal Davenspot reader - that was sent to parents at SAR Academy in Riverdale, NY.  I have heard some buzz from some parents who were pleasantly surprised by the school's attempt to shake up the davening status-quo and others who were angry at the disruption to the traditional framework of tefilla.  This is quite a bold step, especially for an Orthodox day school, and think this educational approach should be further studied and discussed; I will let you be the judge. 

Dear Parents,
I would like to inform you of an important initiative we are about to embark upon regarding tefillah. As you know, this year our school wide theme is dveykut, God awareness. Through curricular programming in beit midrash groups and co-curricular programming such as color war we have been exploring ways of deepening our connection to God. Our daily tefillah presents an important opportunity to work on and strengthen this relationship.

Daily tefillah can be a challenging experience in Modern Orthodox schools. Meaningful tefillah takes great effort and concentration, and students come to tefillah with various levels of readiness to engage. We believe it is essential to immerse our students in a routine of tefillah. Each day, we set aside time to daven as Jews have for centuries. On our best days, our tefillah is inspired and meaningful; on other days, it is more rote. And at times there is a need to break from the routine in order to enrich, reflect upon and more fully appreciate the power of prayer. In that spirit and as part of our year-long theme, davening at SAR High School will look different during the week of January 7th.

During that week, we will be offering over twenty different tefillah options to our students. The options range from discussions of why we pray, to musical tefillah, to artistic expression to meditation. The goal of the experimental tefillah week is to provide students with different avenues to connect to tefillah and to encourage us to be inspirational in our relationship with God. After the experimental tefillah week students will have the opportunity to reflect upon their experience. We envision continuing some of the tefillah groups a few days a week throughout the year, and bringing aspects of others to enrich our regular minyanim.

Some practical information: Yesterday, students were presented with the list of tefillah options and asked to choose a few in which they are interested. Students will attend the same tefillah all week in order to ensure the richness of the experience. Some tefillah groups will daven the full tefillah and add elements, such as music or explanation. Some tefillah groups will daven an abridged פסוקי דזמרה in order to allow time for other experiences. On Monday and Thursday all students will hear קריאת התורה. As part of the women’s tefillah option, girls will have the opportunity to read from the Torah.

I would like to thank our remarkable faculty for the time and effort they have invested in creating these opportunities for our community. We could not embark upon this initiative without their tremendous dedication, actively engaging in opening up meaningful religious opportunities for our students.
We are excited about the opportunities for spiritual growth that this week will offer us on both a personal and communal level. We look forward to sharing our reflections with you.

Rabbi Tully Harcsztark
Principal, SAR High School


1. Explanatory Tefilah
Is Tefilah a struggle for you? Do you find yourself daydreaming during a long Pesukei D’Zimra? Do you feel alienated from most prayers? We hope to explore, think about, and begin to understand what it is we are really doing during tefilah and how each prayer leads into the next, creating a beautiful tapestry. We will focus on a shorter, but more meaningful tefilah experience, culminating in a unique Hitbodidut (solitary) engagement with Tefilah and God.

2. מעט בכוונה
Today's fast-paced world makes it difficult to pray with concentration and serenity. For many, the weekday Shacharit has unfortunately become about getting through all the words as quickly as possible. Theמעט בכוונה tefilah will provide the opportunity to say fewer tefillot at a slower pace. This will allow for greater concentration on each tefilah that we say. We will be not be discussing tefilah. Instead, this minyan will spend almost all of its timedavening, with a particular focus on the Amida.

3. Children's Literature Tefilah
We will aim to attain some emotional resonance in the feelings of care, love, longing, and hope that are latent in powerful works of children’s literature. We will read 2-3 children's books before, during, and after the tefilah. Ultimately, we will direct those feelings to God (and hope for those feelings from God) and to those around us through tefilah. 

4. Help, Thanks, Wow - Children's Literature Tefilah
We will aim to attain some emotional resonance in the feelings of care, love, longing, and hope that are latent in powerful works of children’s literature. We will read 2-3 children's books before, during, and after the tefilah. Ultimately, we will direct those feelings to God (and hope for those feelings from God) and to those around us through tefilah. The novelist Ann Lamott just published a book called Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. The title pretty much gives it all away--she argues that there are three most basic and most important prayers: we ask God for help, we thank God for the help that God has already bestowed, and we marvel at the wonders of God’s creation. The "Help, Thanks, Wow" tefilla will begin the week by reading an excerpt from Lamott's book to explore why these are the essential prayers. On subsequent days, everyone in the "Help, Thanks, Wow" tefilla will be asked to formulate a Help, a Thanks, and a Wow of his/her own, and those who feel comfortable doing so can share theirs with the group. In doing so, we will burrow beneath the ritual of a shul davening to get back to the essential nature of prayer.

5. Meditation Tefilah
This tefilah incorporates guided meditations through a minimal, halakhic tefila. The meditations are based on both Jewish and universal practices, including meditations from Sefer Yetzira and chasidic texts, as well as the practice of zazen, the breathing and body practices of Zen Buddhism. This tefilah also incorporates contemplative nigunim either between tefillot or to the words of a select tefilah.

6. Musical Tefilah
Inspired by the davening of Karlin (where there is a lot of screaming and crying out in the midst of prayer) and that of Rabbi Ebn Leader, we will cultivate a davening which is rooted in song. Sometimes repetitive, sometimes quiet and slow, sometimes loud and overpowering, music has the power to both express and stir up an emotional davening. This davening is for the sincere and not the cynical. Please bring your hearts, souls, voices, and musical instruments!

7. Women’s Tefilah
Women’s tefilah provides an all-girls space in which girls run and lead the davening. On Monday and Thursday girls will layn and get aliyot. We will also have an opportunity to learn and discuss tefillot written by and for women. 

8. Reflection Tefilah
In this tefilah, we will explore themes that emerge from various passages in the siddur. Each day, we will choose a particular tefilah to study, reflect on its theme, and write personal responses. We will pay specific attention to the themes of gratitude, wonder, forgiveness, peoplehood, and aspiration as they present themselves throughout the Shacharit service. Please bring a pen and paper/journal to this tefilah. 

9. Solitary Tefilah
This tefilah option is about connecting to God and yourself at your own pace in a quiet atmosphere. Everyone will have his/her own makom kavua with no 2 chairs next to one another. You will daven quietly, pace yourself, focus on the tefillot that are meaningful to you, and you can daven in whatever language you choose. You will be in an environment of prayer, but you will be davening alone, without interruption, and with only your own mind, heart and siddur, to guide you. For the last 5 minutes of each day we will come together as a group and reflect on the solitary tefilla experience. 

10. Tefilat Eit Tzara
The Ramban claims that the Biblical obligation to daven is only in times of crisis. In this minyan we will daven a quick psukei dezimra, followed by a 10 minute multimedia presentation and discussion preceding Barchu. Through the presentation and discussion we will learn about a particular crisis with the goal being to focus our tefillot on addressing a different issue each day. Issues will cover national, international and personal itei tzara.

11. Yoga Tefilah
Being in the right mood for tefilah is about mental focus and physical composure. In this tefilah group we will practice Yoga as a means towards achieving better focus and kavannah during tefilah. Bring a yoga mat if you have one, and make sure to dress appropriately for תפילה 

12. Tisch Tefilah
Stories and song are a powerful way of connecting to God. At this tefilah we will daven an abridged tefilah, followed by a vibrant tisch filled with inspiring song and stories.

13. Without Intelligence, Whence Prayer?
This service will attempt to clear the space in which meaningful tefilah can happen by focusing on intellectual reflection as a means of overcoming alienation from authentic prayer. Each day, prior to a slightly abbreviated tefilah, we will recite the birkhot ha-torah together and then study and discuss a different text essential to a satisfactory, and satisfying, practice of prayer. The explicit goal is to evoke the nature of tefilah in a manner that will initiate and enhance its heartfelt performance. 

14. Exploring Nusach Tefilah
This tefilah will explore nuschaot of tefilla from around the world by davening in a different nusach each day. We will highlight some of the major differences between Ashkenaz, Sefard, Eidot mizrach, and Nusach Ha-Ari.

15. Philosophy and Poetry of Prayer
Why should we pray? Does God really listen? Should I expect God to say "yes"? Is it really all about that, anyway? We will explore different philosophies of prayer, also using some of the tefillot themselves as our guide. פסוקי דזמרה will be shortened.

16. Shout it Out, Slow and Loud
This tefilah will employ the technique found in many sefaradi shuls in the world that all the words of the hazan are said out loud and together with all members of the kahal. We will say selected parts of the pesukei dezimra and tachanun on Mondays and Thursdays, skipping parts of those sections in the standard siddur, while saying the parts that we do say slowly, out loud and with a tune or two.

17. Piano Tefilah
After an abridged davening we will join together around the piano in the cafeteria for lively songs and stories to add joy to our day.

18. Artistic Expression Tefilah
Art is often likened to meditation- and by creating art we become closer to ourselves, nature and God. Students participating in Art/Tefilah option will daven an abbreviated tefilah and have time to create art with particular mindfulness toward spirituality.

19 Finding God in our Prayers
Are our prayers directed to God, to ourselves, or to our community? In this tefilah, a science teacher reflects on the meaning of particular prayers, especially those connected to health and wellness. We will daven an abridged davening, followed by stories and discussion.

20. Meditating on the Amidah
Using basic meditative breathing we will work through a minimal amount of davening and then focus on the thirteen central berachot of the Amida. We will learn to be present with our breath, our bodies and with the words of the siddur. In addition, time will be spent inserting ourselves into the prayers so that we are reciting our own words and not only the words of our tradition.

21. Israel Awareness Tefilah
Every morning we mention the land of Israel numerous times in our prayers, but how much attention do we really pay to it? This tefilah will highlight the portions of davening that focus on Israel. We will use those sections of tefilah as entryways into discussion of current political, religious and social issues facing the State of Israel. Through increased awareness of Israel’s current state of affairs we will be better equipped to direct our tefillot for her welfare.

22. Prayer and Justice- L’taken Olam B’malchut Shakkai
We will explore how tefilah can make change in the world. Join us for meditation, learning, and davening that connects Judaism's most heavenly ideas to our world's most real problems.

1 comment:

  1. Kol ha'kavod for innovation and effort. Are there more details on the program? Any precedent to learn from? If there is some success in this model, it should be disseminated because many other MO schools could benefit.