AVI CHAI concluded its general grant making on December 31, 2019.

Pushing Against the Tefillah Ceiling

Posted by: Deborah Fishman

November 6, 2015

Last spring, AVI CHAI released 20 case studies exploring how Jewish day schools enact their Jewish missions. We have been further delving into the issues which the studies bring to life through a series of webinars, hosted by Dr. Jack Wertheimer, Director of AVI CHAI’s Center for Research and Policy and Professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who oversaw the case study project. Previously, we explored, “What story does your school tell about its Jewish purpose?” and “What key values and commitments motivate your school’s leadership team?” (recordings available here).
Yesterday, Dr. Wertheimer led a webinar exploring the rich topic of tefillah in a day school context. Featured speakers were two representatives from schools highlighted in case studies in the project. Ray Levi is the former Head of School at the Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School (a Community school), documented in “Pushing Against the Tefillah Ceiling” written by Alex Pomson. Ray is the current Director of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Shawn SimonHazani is the former head of Judaics at the Perelman Day School Robert Saligman Middle School in Philadelphia (a member of the Solomon Schechter day school network), the subject of “Religious Purposefulness in Leadership, Curriculum, and Practice,” written by Dr. Wertheimer and Pearl Mattenson. He is the current Director at Hannaton Educational Center, a year-long study program for high school students based at Kibbutz Hannaton, Israel.
Tefillah is an issue around which many school leaders find themselves doing some soul-searching to determine the best path for their students. As one quoted in the “Pushing Against the Tefillah Ceiling” case expressed:
“‘What I mean is that we’ve experienced improvement, but it seems that we’ve hit up against some invisible, unspoken cultural assumptions in our students’ lives. It stops them from going higher when they’re with us. You know, some of us have seen these kids fly when they daven at camp, at Herzl or Ramah, but it seems that when they’re in school, the shutters come down.’ Sheepishly smiling, he finished: ‘You know me, I’m the last person to make a drama, but I wonder if we’ve gone as far as we can.’”
Expressing their deep interest in the topic, the online audience watching the webinar wrote in with questions and comment which the presenters sought to address. These included:
“How can a school start to change the culture of tefillah where students may have a siddur in their hand but don’t feel the need to even open up the siddur? It is difficult because no one can force anyone to actually daven, but the atmosphere might make it uncomfortable for those students to actually daven due to peer pressure and actually praying is against the norm. This applies to boys and girls but particularly to the girls, since it is an Orthodox minyan and they do not lead services.”
“How can schools use family tefillah experiences to help parents be dugmaot [role models] for their children? And how can they use them to be learning experiences for parents as well?”
“What’s the role of teaching for pluralism in tefillah? How can we teach for variations in religious practice, or at least the awareness of and appreciation of variations in religious practice (and belief)? This is both for Community day schools as well as movement-based schools where there are variations in individual family practice and belief.”
It is clear that while tefillah may at times be a formidable topic, it is also one that can galvanize and excite school leaders. There are not only many challenges, but also tremendous opportunities to uphold the school’s Jewish mission by inspiring students in their connection to Judaism, religious practice, and God. Perhaps that is why school leaders feel it is so crucial – and why they were so eager to learn about other leaders’ thinking and practices on this webinar.
You can watch the recording here:

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