Making Tefillah Meaningful - Top 6 Tips for Prayer Education

Why is tefillah such a challenge for so many of us?

Only in Jewish educational circles are we able to hold the delicious irony of tefillah [prayer] education often being more work than it seems worth. We’re constantly searching for new hooks to appeal to learners of all ages and stages, and to find ways to fuse ancient texts and modern sensibilities in ways that are both personally and communally meaningful for our populations. No pressure there - it’s not like we as educators are somehow being held responsible for the spiritual well-being of our constituents while being given a half hour a week to build those bonds, right? Right?

Anyway.

I recognize that for many of us, the expectations of tefillah education are enormous, and overwhelming. We need to find ways to teach the skills deemed necessary for a b’nai mitzvah service to be considered successful, to build relationships between our students and content that is at once age-old and expected to be personally relevant, and often there’s a musical component, all thrown together with learners who are figuring out what all of this means. Ideally, we want tefillah to be more than a performance - more than the rote memorization and mumbling of sounds that don’t translate for our learners in any kind of comprehensible way. Prayer is something deeply personal, yet in Judaism it takes on a uniquely collective nature. In order to meet the needs of the individual and the community, here are my top tips for answering the question of

How can we connect our learners with tefillah in ways that are intentional and meaningful?

  1. Make it personal - One of the most meaningful prayer spaces I’ve been in is at the Tel Aviv port. Every summer, Beit Tefillah Israeli, a secular Jewish group, hosts weekly musical Shabbat services overlooking the sea. While the sunset, the songs, and the integration of ancient texts with modern Hebrew poetry all make this a prime time for a spiritual encounter, my favorite part is that in every service, there’s an opportunity to make things personal and intimate in a crowd of hundreds. Anyone who wants to is invited to share things they’re grateful for in this moment. Find your own ways to help participants connect with the prayer. What are the ways they can see themselves in it, and make it personal to their own lives?

  2. Connect with the text - Instead of focusing on only the sounds of the Hebrew words and melodies, take some time to explore the English [or whatever the language of choice is for your population]. Probe its depths and figure out what it means in terms that are understandable and relevant. One of my favorite ways to truly turn the text inside out is through an activity called found poetry. Using certain words/verses/phrases from a designated text, have each participant write their own poem, either in response to a theme or as a free-write. How can they each adapt the same words and premise to tell the stories of their own souls?

  3. Place it into a larger context - After learning a prayer, hone in on its central theme. Consider the overall message that the prayer is teaching, both in terms of its content, its history, and when we say it. Then, ask every participant to bring in another piece of art (song, literature, visual, etc.) that resonates with that same theme and place them in conversation with the prayer. How does one relate to the other? What is the place of the prayer in how we relate to the emotion or theme being expressed?

  4. Consider the halakha - Not all prayers are created equal, and as such, there are different rules and customs for how/when each one is said. Some are only for certain days or occasions, others can only be said with a minyan [prayer quorum] and others are more universal/DIY in nature. Think about the rules and regulations about your prayer of choice, and explore how they contribute to the experience of this piece of text. For example, how does the Mourner’s Kaddish requiring a minyan help us relate to the prayer itself in a different way?

  5. Get musical - So many people enjoy the act of singing, particularly in groups. I have no musical talent whatsoever, but I find profound joy in singing together with my community in prayer services. Even if music education isn’t part of your usual repertoire, try to make an exception for tefillah time. Learn a new niggun [melody] with your students, explore how different tunes make a prayer experience different, or join together in loudly singing an old favorite.

  6. Focus on God - Personal, as well as collective prayer, has a strong tradition in Judaism. Ideas like hitbodedut, an individual walking meditation practice, put us in personal conversations with our own concepts of the divine. Create space for these personal conversations. Give your participants a chance to find their own spaces - outside, throughout a room, or in whatever form you can, and encourage them to talk (or whisper, or sing, or in some way verbalize) a stream of consciousness only between them and their understandings of God. Sometimes prayer is at its best when it’s spontaneous and unstructured.

So there you have it - my favorite tips for taking prayer education out of the box and making it meaningful, relevant, and special for your learners. Now it’s your turn - what are your best tips and tricks? Add them in the comments below!