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Middle School Tefillah (prayer)

By Amy Katz

In my career I have been lucky enough to work in four very different Jewish day schools across the country. As a professional I’ve had the opportunity to visit more day schools, and over the years I’ve met many teachers and administrators from even more schools. You might think that all of these schools have a lot in common, but in fact each one is unique in terms of the populations they serve, their geographical location, their overall philosophy around pedagogy, and the range of Jewish practice in the families, students, and faculty. Every school has its own individual challenges and triumphs. And yet, I can confidently say that there is one common struggle at every Jewish day school. In fact at last year’s Prizmah conference, in an attempt to unite a group of over 1,000 extremely diverse Jewish day school educators around a single common challenge,  one of the key-note speakers simply said these three words: middle school tefillah.  

Every school wants their tefillah program to be meaningful, relevant and joyful across the grade levels. We all hope our students will have the skills they need to participate actively in tefillah, but we also want them to relate to, understand, and connect to the words they are saying. Younger children for the most part enjoy participating in tefillah with their classmates and teachers; tefillah is often a time of great joy and connection for younger students in Jewish day schools. However, something inevitable happens in the middle school years. Students become self-conscious and it becomes difficult for them to sing in front of their classmates. Developmentally, students are struggling with concepts of theology, religion and identity, and they are no longer certain they believe the words in the siddur.   

At PJA I am proud to say that our middle schoolers do engage in tefillah fairly actively. For many years we’ve given them plenty of opportunity to grapple with their beliefs in class, we radically accept them for who they are as thinkers and believers, and we encourage them to take leadership roles in tefillah. We also intentionally try to make their tefillah experience upbeat and fun, and provide opportunities for them to share their personal prayers.  

This year we wanted to provide even more opportunities for our middle school students to connect to tefillah. On Monday mornings everyone participates in a traditional shacharit (morning) service, but we have changed up our afternoon tefillah. On Tuesday afternoons the students participate in tefillah rotations. In mixed age groups, each PJA middle school student spends four Tuesday afternoons connecting to tefillah in different ways. The rotations include tefillah through poetry, mindfulness, music, and social action. We also have a traditional rotation which includes time for theological discussions of the tefillot (prayers). After each student participates in all five rotations they will have a chance to focus on the type of tefillah experience they felt was the most meaningful to them. We hope and expect that these rotations will keep the doors of meaningful tefillah engagement wide open for our students, and allow them to find an entry point that works for them at this stage of their lives. 

Today I had the opportunity to eat lunch with three seventh graders. We talked about Torah and God and just how hard it can be sometimes to find meaning in traditional tefillah. I asked them how they like the new tefillah rotations, and they responded positively. They asked me to consider adding more options next year including art, dance, and makerspace. They also asked if they and their classmates might be allowed to lead the rotations next year. I told them that I thought that was a wonderful idea and together we began to brainstorm what student-led tefillah choices might look like. I realized in that moment, as I do in so many moments here at PJA, just what a tremendous blessing it is to work at this school. Yes, like other schools we want our middle school students to be engaged in tefillah. And when you say the three words “middle school tefillah” to the educators and students at PJA, we see an opportunity to create moments of meaning, growth, and connection. 

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