A New Model for Prayer in a Pluralistic Day School

Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School

Carol Rubin

How does a pluralistic1 day school create meaningful prayer experiences for all its students?

This was the probing question asked by parents, teachers, administrators, and community clergy as negotiations were proceeding for a newly merged community day school. Our school was to be the first of its kind. This was the merger of a Conservative day school and a Reform day school, each with very distinct brands of prayer experiences, melodies, and prayer books. The challenges were broad, all-encompassing, and highly emotional. Our most important task was to create an environment of respect and comfort that included a diversity of prayer experiences in our pluralistic day school. As a constructivist-based school,2 we were committed to offering a variety of methods through which our students could express their understanding of the prayers. This meant empowering students to discover personal meaning, expression, and understanding. These challenges were seen as an opportunity to create a new culture of pluralism and a nonjudgmental atmosphere of exploration, tolerance, and personal discovery. Each eighth-grade graduate would be able to walk into any Conservative or Reform synagogue in any community and feel a familiarity with the prayer book, service order, blessings, and melodies, while understanding his or her individual responsibility for reflection and growth.

During our first year, we rotated the use of different prayer books, and exposed the students to their similarities. We had one day when students presented interpretations (kavanot) to deepen their understanding of the blessings and create an opportunity for leadership. For a variety of reasons, we knew early in the year that this approach was a resounding failure, and quickly collaborated to research practices in other pluralistic schools. We soon instituted the use of a new prayer book created by the Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School, which we could use every day for the elementary students and which was not particular to any one denomination. We carefully introduced it, conducting in-class discussions and explanations to identify and comment on the inclusion of all the prayers or blessings recited in the morning service, Torah service, and additional blessings for special days. 

At the end of the year, there was still a feeling by several students' families of being disconnected from the prayer experience. Some expressed discomfort with the use of a guitar and unfamiliar "campy" melodies, while others found little connection with davening straight through the service without explanations. The answer was in my Jewish summer camp background as a camper, staff member, and faculty member at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute, a Union for Reform Judaism camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. During each session at camp, we were able to choose chugim or interest groups that exposed us to something new for a designated period of time. This seemed like a great model by which the students could access the meaning of the blessings while discovering a personal connection through various points of entry.

At the beginning of our second school year (2013–2014), we introduced this new model of tefillah for grades 3 to 5 on Mondays and Wednesdays. We hoped the new model would address concerns and also expose our students to a variety of options through which they could express their personal understanding and connection with prayers and blessings. We continued our student-led tefillah on Tuesdays, Torah reading on Thursdays, and Kabbalat Shabbat on Fridays. The school year was divided into four rotations, each lasting six-weeks. Between rotations, the students would pray together and share components of what they had learned or created in their chugim.

At the beginning of each rotation, teachers presented four options to the students and their families from which to choose. The year's options included Prayer as an Inspiration for Writing and the Arts, Prayer as an Inspiration for Creating New Melodies, Prayer in Contemporary Israeli Music, Prayer as an Inspiration to Create through Technology, Nature as an Inspiration for Prayer, Davening, and others. These were shared in a letter to the third- to fifth-grade students' families at the beginning of the year and then, at the start of each session, students brought home a list of the choices to share with their parents so they could decide together. Students and their families ranked their choices first, second, and third (students could sign up for the same option more than once), and the school administration created groups accordingly. The chugim were led by staff members and community guests.

This new approach proved to be an inspirational model that created meaning and greater connection with prayer. It addressed the needs of our diverse population while meeting our goals of building a culture of respect, nonjudgmental practice, and personal responsibility to discover meaning in prayer. It also supported our philosophy that the time a student spends in tefillah is a crucial part of their school-day experience. The time spent in tefillah is an opportunity to experience transformational moments as students begin to understand the role of prayer in Jewish life. Our goal is for students to see tefillot as an enriching part of the day that can lead to self-reflection and has the potential to inspire them to "live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God."

Carol Rubin is the director of Jewish Life at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School in St. Louis, Missouri, which adopted the guidelines of the Jewish Standards and Benchmarks Project of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Rubin has worked at synagogue schools and day schools, and been involved with Jewish college campus initiatives. Her Jewish summer camping experience at the Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute became the framework and inspiration for her work with day schools. Rubin served on an administrative team that supervised the merger of Conservative Solomon Schechter Day School and Saul Mirowitz Day School—Reform Jewish Academy, creating the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School. 


1 The Mirowitz Jewish Community School defines pluralistic as "a community that actively honors denomination/observance differences, provides opportunities for people to understand and respect these differences, and—at times—preserves some space for people to respectfully separate, when needed." 

2 A constructivist-based school is founded upon the belief that students learn best when they can synthesize new material with what they already know. In other words, teachers are facilitators in helping each student discover or "construct" his or her personal path to making meaning and connections with new knowledge. It is focused more on discovering how the student learns, and less on how the teacher teaches.