HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Answering Parents’ Prayers

by Judd Kruger Levingston Issue: Tefillah
TOPICS : Tefillah Parents

While fraught with pitfalls, engaging parents in formulating school policy can be especially valuable and rewarding in the area of tefillah, which is often bound up with issues of family and community identity.

Schools often struggle over the extent to which parents and the extended community should be involved with the formulation of policy. When our school began to explore the possibility of having tefillot during the school day, we knew that we would need parent involvement and support. (Previously, there were only voluntary services held in the morning before the start of school.) Discussions began shortly after our parents participated in a national survey developed and administered by Measuring Success and supported by PEJE. When the results were tabulated, we learned that our parents rated our writing program highly. To our disappointment, we also learned that we placed in the bottom third of our peer group in the degree to which parents would recommend our school on the basis of the Jewish development of their children.

When we thought about the issue, we also realized that Jewish development, however we might understand it, had not necessarily been part of the 65 year-old mission of our school. Over the years, the school’s Statement of Mission has focused on nurturing academic excellence, on promoting young leadership and on affirming each student’s moral development. Spiritual development was not included.

Barrack Academy was founded by secular Zionists and Hebraists in the 1940s. Regularly scheduled religious services were not held during the school day. Students dressed up for Kabbalat Shabbat ceremonies on Fridays, and the daily schedule changed for special Rosh Chodesh and holiday programming, but unlike other Jewish day schools, the schedule did not include time for daily services.

As director of Jewish studies, I was asked to lead a task force to probe the implications of the survey data and to see if we could improve our program sufficiently to meet the hopes and expectations of our parents. It would make good business sense, too, because we knew that the same PEJE survey would be administered again in just another couple of years.

The task force quickly learned that nobody agreed on the definition of “Jewish development.” Some saw it as synonymous with religious development; others saw it as related to Jewish learning and intellectual development. Others related it to identity development. Our discussions led us to ask if our ideal Barrack graduate also was a successfully developed Jewish individual.

The task force came to realize that parents probably did not understand the term any better than we did, and after several conversations in which we attempted to clarify our understanding of Jewish development, we settled on the following areas:

  • Participating in community service (chesed projects and chesed days)
  • Knowledge of Jewish history
  • Developing familiarity and competency with home ritual practices
  • Conversational Hebrew
  • Exploring central ideas and major thinkers in Jewish philosophy
  • Participating in regular prayer as part of the school day
  • Developing familiarity and competency with synagogue skills
  • Developing personal faith and a personal Jewish theology
  • Developing skills for studying biblical and rabbinic texts
  • Achieving expertise in studying biblical and rabbinic texts
  • Feeling good about being Jewish
  • Drawing on Jewish sources to make mature moral and social choices
  • Identifying with modern Israel

Having settled on an understanding of Jewish development, the task force decided to open the door once again to parent opinion in a second survey (recent alumni and juniors and seniors were also surveyed).

This survey asked respondents just two questions: to rank their priorities among these areas, and to rate the school’s success in achieving them.

We were pleased to receive responses from more than 60% of our parents. While “Feeling good about being Jewish,” “Identifying with modern Israel,” and “Knowledge of Jewish history” all received high rankings, about a third of our parents indicated that regular religious services as part of the school day were important to them. We also learned that they care about synagogue skills and home ritual practices. When we combined the numbers of parents placing a priority on these three goals, we felt confident that a significant number of our parents would be supportive of an effort to bring tefillot into our school day.

Many of our students were asking for daily tefillot as well. A large number of our students come to us as ninth graders from other Jewish day schools, and many have expressed regret at missing the special connection that they felt from participating in Jewish rituals and prayers in their former schools.

With a new head of school and a supportive board, our school leadership felt that it had sufficient mandate to move forward with plans to have Shacharit services on Monday and Thursday mornings. Having Shacharit services as part of the school day became part of a shift in school culture that was supported by the board, many of the parents, the administration, the teachers, and, ultimately, by the majority of students as well.

Because we knew that a number of parents might oppose this shift, I led two open discussions about tefillot for parents and several with students as well. Some of the parents were vociferously opposed to Shacharit services, citing the school’s mission as they understood it, asking why services were more valuable than biology, English or Jewish studies classes that could shape a student’s intellect and moral development. One parent felt that it should not be the business of the school to require anybody to pray, that prayer should be part of a student’s home life, not a part of school life. Many students felt the same, telling me that they were dead set against “mandatory prayer.”

I answered the students and parents by telling them that I, too, was against “mandatory prayer.” I agreed wholeheartedly that students shouldn’t be forced to pray. As a Jewish educator, I told them, I could not use my position in the school to require that anybody pray. At the same time, I explained, the school leadership felt that it was not unreasonable to ask that students at a Jewish day school become familiar with formal Jewish prayer as a part of their education.

To address this concern, we formulated a scheme that led to the acceptance of tefillah among some of the more resistant parents. Students were asked to sign up for one trimester in a siddur-based Shacharit group and for two trimesters of any other group that would please them. No more than ten or fifteen students (less than 5%) of our students asked to be released from the siddur-based group, so we have strong attendance both in our regular minyanim (Orthodox/mechitzah, middle school egalitarian, upper school egalitarian, and explanatory) and in our other reflection groups.

Students in the different reflection groups practice yoga or guided imagery, make art, listen to music from different traditions, write in their journals, read dramatic scripts that raise theological, philosophical and moral issues, and listen to literature that raises moral issues. These groups have emerged from teacher initiative. Teachers are encouraged to offer a Shacharit group that relates to their interests.

We still face the ongoing challenge of maintaining our Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday minyanim that meet before the school day. With parent support, we have tried to build attendance with an online signup website and word of mouth. We also welcome parents on Mondays or Thursdays immediately before or after the bar or bat mitzvah. Parents enjoy taking us up on this invitation because they are eager to mark the occasion and to bridge their home and school communities by celebrating the bar or bat mitzvah with the school community.

What have we learned from involving our parents in tefillot?

When framing the scope and goals of a tefillah program, it was very helpful to have a joint parent-staff task force deployed to explore the issues, to consider areas of resistance, and to develop strategies. It was essential that the task force had gathered parent insights through the survey so that we can continue to refer to that data as questions come up about the role of Shacharit in the school.

Once a minyan or Shacharit program is launched, many parents may be willing to help make a minyan. Some parents may even look to their children’s school for a minyan if they are saying Kaddish and don’t have time to get to a shul.

Parents are willing to support the school’s efforts to educate students about tefillot and to have tefillot constitute an important element in the school’s educational program when they are assured that their sons and daughters are not going to be “forced to pray.”

When they are allowed to choose some of the terms of their engagement, students are willing to accept and buy into a program with tefillot when it is cast as reflection time, as a gift, as time for enrichment, and, yes, also as an opportunity to connect with God and with the community.

Schools looking to begin or strengthen a program of tefillot can benefit from involving parents in multiple ways as we did through a survey, through focus groups, and through a task force that was charged with interpreting the survey results, with making programmatic suggestions and with supporting the school’s efforts to create a new, meaningful, responsive and sustainable Shacharit program.

The task force completed its work once it made its recommendations, but its impact was far-reaching for the goodwill it generated among parents and for the program that it allowed to begin.

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Most day schools are committed to cultivating Jewish prayer, tefillah, as a spiritual practice. In practice, they often find the obstacles formidable: lack of curriculum, knowledgeable and passionate prayer leaders, student interest, awareness of goals, to name a few. Articles here aim to help schools clarify their approach and strengthen the educational bases of school tefillah.

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