Tefillah as Compelling Experience—Challenges and Successes

Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School 

Deborah Miller

What Jewish educator has not struggled with the challenges inherent in helping learners to find tefillah (prayer) a compelling experience? In this issue of Gleanings, outstanding teachers and leaders of tefillah, including graduates of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, The Rabbinical School, and H. L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music of The Jewish Theological Seminary, portray successes in this important field. Each writer focuses on different dimensions of the tefillah experience. They attend, variously, to the nature of the prayer community; the relationship between tefillah and music (in synagogues, day schools, and congregational schools); the kinds of music that can touch us; and the place that deep understanding of the words of the siddur (prayer book) has in touching our souls. 

All of this is necessary because the very nature of a set liturgy that is constantly repeated can lead to mind-numbing, and—even worse—spirit-numbing boredom. This is not just a student problem, it is a problem we all face. (Young students express their detachment by complaining or by behaving indifferently; adults express it by avoiding services.) 

This week, I had an epiphany regarding this problem: I am now convinced, along with many of our writers, that it is the power of music and song that raises tefillah from prosaic reading and chanting to something more inspirational. Music is immediate, unmediated, and effortless. A great tefillah leader elicits ruah (spirit), and imbues it through the power of the beat, the sound, and the multiplying effect of a group of voices. It is not that the meaning of the words is irrelevant. When we understand what we are singing, that adds to the experience; but I now believe that intellectual engagement comes second to emotional engagement in tefillah, and it is music, much more than poetry, that touches us easily. 

Two further notes about the power of music as the focus of tefillah: First, there is often a tension between the various groups of children who come to junior congregation on Shabbat morning: the day school students usually have much more facility with prayer than the congregational school students, and the students who go to Jewish camp may have a completely different experience altogether. The divide that often occurs at junior congregation is more easily bridged when the focus is great singing and music.

Second, we often claim that one of our educational goals is enculturation—and music is one important aspect of culture. Music can draw students (of whatever age) who may have already decided that they are not religious Jews into Jewish life and culture.

The questions would then become: How do we prepare Jewish educators to be these great tefillah leaders, and inspire them to take on those roles? What skills and knowledge do Jewish educators need, and how can the Jewish community marshal the resources to provide them? Can we imagine a "tefillah leaders' beit midrash"—in person or online—that cultivates the necessary capacity? What else would it take? We invite you to add your thoughts to those of the contributors to this issue of Gleanings.

Dr. Deborah Miller is associate director of the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. She administers the grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation that provides funding for many elements of The Davidson School, and works with the teams for the Etgar and MaToK curricula. Dr. Miller earned her BA at Barnard College, and her MA in Jewish Education (1986) and doctorate (2005) at The Davidson School.