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Challenges And Creative Responses To Tefillah Education

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“I myself often feel that tefillah is the most exhausting part of my day…. Yet I desperately seek to create a space where students can have a personal and meaningful connection with God…. I am very concerned that I have gradually become a warden, always looking for someone who might be talking, and have drifted far away from being a model of the joy and warmth of davening…”

These words, written by a fine, sensitive educator, are echoed by scores of others I have encountered. For years it felt like it was one of those closely guarded secrets that educators only whispered to one another: Tefillah in the morning with kids is hard: “It takes me the first couple of hours of the day just to recuperate.” “It puts me in a bad mood.” “The kids don’t appreciate it.” “I work so hard the rest of the day working on becoming closer to the students, and I feel that policing in tefillah hinders my ability to connect with them.”

I recall that in the early years of my career, we thought the siddur was the answer. Then we thought that If only kids would understand the words, they surely would appreciate tefillah so much more. But our minyanim did not get any quieter despite the bilingual siddurim we were using at the time. As one student wrote, “Even if I read the prayers in English I still don’t feel them. I feel really bad though – I want to understand; I just can’t get there.”

Many students struggle with the distance they feel from the words and concepts of the siddur. Indeed, the very meaning of prayer is not something we have spent a lot of time explaining to kids. In elementary school there is a heavy emphasis, as there should be, on children learning to read, on correct pronunciation, on singing, and on “learning” ever more prayers to add to their repertoire. By the time they get to middle and high school, we often just assume they “get it.”

But the truth is we seldom explore with kids what prayer is supposed to be about. We don’t ask them to ask themselves what prayer means to them and how it might make a difference in their lives.

For many of us as adults, our knowledge combines with our life experience to bring meaning to those words, but that is something we learned over time as we came to realize the siddur could help us express our innermost feelings and aspirations. But why should we have to wait until we’re adults to appreciate the words? Surely young children and adolescents have their own feelings, thoughts, and aspirations. Should the siddur not speak to them as well?

Yeshiva University and Koren Publishers have come together to suggest a paradigm shift in tefillah education. They envisioned a siddur that would be age-appropriate both in form and content, that would be aesthetically pleasing and functional, that would preserve the integrity of tradition and, above all, that would encourage students to find their own meaning in the words.

Thanks to the support of the Magerman family, we’ve developed a new series of siddurim for students: the Koren Magerman Educational Siddur Series. Each siddur, developmentally-designed for each age group, focuses on the critical goals of meaning making and connection building. The first in the series (for K-2nd grade) and the fourth (for 9th -12th grade and beyond) were published earlier this year. The two middle siddurim (for 3-5th grade and 6-8th grade), will form the bridge between them. They will be available in the coming months.

About the Author: Rabbi Jay Goldmintz, Ed.D., is a seasoned educator who formerly served as headmaster of the Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan. He is the commentary author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur. This essay was originally published, in slightly different form, in the Lookjed Digest of the Lookstein Center.


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Goldmintz-072514

The truth is we seldom explore with kids what prayer is supposed to be about.

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