Politics, Religion

Prayer Education: A Plan for Revitalization

In our recent heated discussion on stage-direction-free prayer, all participants agreed that prayer education is necessary and important (even though we disagreed on the time, place, and manner). Apropos of this, Elie Kaunfer, a founder of Kehilat Hadar, has written an article on prayer education that appears in the latest issue of CAJE‘s Jewish Education News. The article doesn’t appear anywhere online, so we have received permission to reprint it here.


Prayer Education: A Plan for Revitalization
By Elie Kaunfer

Over the past generation, there has been an explosion of adult learning opportunities offered by synagogues and independent institutions (e.g. Meah, Melton, Wexner Heritage). Yet the cutting edge of Jewish education has yet to seriously impact the synagogue service itself. Below I explore what I see as the highest priority for synagogue life: high quality prayer education. In order for worship to be revitalized, prayer instruction, broadly defined, must be overhauled and constructed anew.
Most synagogues offer three major types of prayer education: (1) “real time” education during services, (2) learners’ services and (3) evening prayer classes. All three forms of prayer education have laudable goals: to familiarize the congregant with the service, presumably to facilitate a meaningful experience of prayer. However, in many cases, the existing prayer education actually slows or even prevents the worshiper from experiencing meaning. Below I examine some of the pitfalls of current prayer education, and then I offer suggestions for improvement.
“Real Time” Education: Moving from Verbal to Non-Verbal
Contemporary prayer education often takes place first and foremost in the midst of prayer itself. This form is less structured than a formal class and often washes over the worshiper as “announcements.” Yet “real time” education is, in fact, multifaceted and wide-ranging in its goals. It includes:
(1) Brief explanations by the rabbi offered from the pulpit during prayer: “This week’s Torah portion covers the laws of….”
(2) “Prioritizing” prayers: “We now turn to the Kedusha, the most sacred portion of the service.”
(3) “Signalling” proper emotion: “In a moment, the cantor will chant the hauntingly beautiful and moving Hineni prayer.”
(4) “Structure” announcements: “We now begin the Torah service portion of our morning service.”
(5) “Place-finding” announcements: “Please turn to page 24 for Adon Olam.”
(6) “Proper body movement” instructions: “Please rise/ please be seated.”
Often, “real time” prayer education combines many elements of the above categories: “Please rise as we turn to page 100 for the Kedusha, the most sacred and moving portion of the morning service.” In one sentence, the rabbi has communicated to the worshiper: 1) how to move one’s body, 2) where to find one’s place in the siddur, 3) to recognize the Kedusha as a separate structural unit in the morning service, 4) how to prioritize the Kedusha relative to other prayers and 5) how to emotionally experience the Kedusha.
“Real time” synagogue education seems, on its face, both efficient and risk-free. After all, in one sentence, the rabbi has communicated five different aspects of the upcoming prayer. However, there are actually a number of deleterious effects of this form of prayer education. At its core, prayer is a tightly choreographed dance which, ideally, builds emotion through rhythm, music and flow. This flow favors the “heart space” over the “head space.” Therefore, any interruption of the flow of the service comes at a cost: (1) the suspension of the rhythm and flow of the service itself and (2) the worshiper switching from experiencing emotions to absorbing information.
In addition, the very nature of these announcements communicates to the worshiper that there is a uniform standard with which she must comply: “Please turn to page 100” really indicates: “Everyone is on page 100, and you should be as well.” This allows no room for worshipers to pray at their own pace (or to use a different siddur).
Similarly, the attempt to convey an emotion associated with a prayer (“the most moving part of the service”) signals to the worshiper that one is expected to feel a certain way in the following moment of the service. This causes the worshiper to suspect himself if he does not feel that this is, in fact, the most moving part of the service. Ultimately, the attempt to educate about traditional emotions associated with prayers can leave the worshiper alienated and frustrated.
I am not suggesting that congregations do away with all “real time” education during the service. However, it is crucial that clergy consider the necessary costs of such education, and balance them against the benefits. Once the costs are taken into account, other solutions may emerge. For instance, instead of signaling the proper emotion of an upcoming prayer, perhaps it is best to let the worshiper experience (or not experience) that emotion through the music of the prayer itself. Or, instead of announcing every page, provide a sheet with prayer names and page numbers, which worshipers can consult at their leisure. Instead of announcing each time one should stand or sit, simply stand or sit, and allow the congregation to follow suit.
The above solutions are examples of non-verbal “real time” education. This is a way to model the experience of prayer without explaining it. Worshipers can learn when to sit and stand without ever hearing the words, “please rise.” Similarly, music can signal the mood of a particular prayer. If the prayer leader understands that the Kedusha is the holiest part of the morning service (a debatable claim), then she can signal that to the worshipers through melody selection and tone. This eliminates the need for a descriptive announcement. The instructional goal is accomplished, but the damage to the flow of the service is minimal. As with creative writing, it is often better to “show,” not “tell.”
One may argue that verbal “real time” education is necessary, because many worshipers are completely unfamiliar with the services, and this is the best chance they have of figuring out what is happening during prayer. That may be the case, but once “real time” education is recognized as having costs, the clergy may ask: what is the negative effect of this announcement on the worshiper who is familiar with the service? If the knowledgeable worshipers are key to maintaining the flow and rhythm of the service, will this announcement help or hurt that larger goal? By recognizing the costs of “real time” education during services, clergy will better be able to balance the desire to help newcomers with the goal of maintaining a high-energy service.
Finally, one might ask: must participants in a service understand the structure and meaning of the prayers in order to experience powerful moments of prayer? To be sure, a greater understanding of the service can lead to a deeper appreciation of Jewish prayer. However, much of the magic and power of prayer is its very other-worldliness. If all the secrets are revealed, if no sense of mystery or surprise remains, the chances of entering a prayerful mindset are seriously diminished. In balancing education with experience, it is perhaps useful to remember that sometimes experience, even one not understood, can be more powerful than a conscious knowledge of all aspects of prayer.
Learners’ Services: The Challenge of Education vs. Experience
Learners’ services are distinct from “real time” education in that they do not take place in the context of the traditional service. However, the learners’ service is in fact a complicated space, which is not simply a classroom. It is a hybrid between a class and a service, and as such, is very difficult to execute well. If the learners’ service devolves only into text analysis and discussion, then there is no “service” element to it. However, it cannot simply mimic the “main” service, because it has explicit educational goals.
I once attended a learners’ service which shifted my understanding of learners’ services in general. Because the rabbi was conducting a service, and not only a class, he was bound by certain parameters of halacha which on the face of it might seriously cripple a learners’ service. For example, he would not talk between Barchu and the end of the Amidah, following the halachic injunction against a hefsek (break) in this section of the service. However, he used this time for modeling instead of teaching. He used a transliterated siddur (and therefore could rely on attendees to join him in prayer) and chose easy, spirited Carlebach tunes for many sections of Shaharit. At the end of that portion of the service, the attendees hadn’t learned about the history, structure or meaning of the prayers, but they had experienced an energetic moment of prayer.
I encourage learners’ service leaders to follow this model. Consider the first part of the service as a classroom setting: discuss people’s difficulties with prayer, teach about a particular text, practice reading a prayer out loud. But leave time in the second portion for an experience of prayer. This will allow beginners not only to talk about prayer, but also to pray.
Prayer Classes: Broadening the Curriculum
Weeknight prayer classes are often the core of a congregation’s prayer curriculum. They offer an opportunity to delve into the prayers without the pressure of balancing “heart space” with “head space,” as is necessary during an actual prayer service, or even a learners’ service. However, a serious examination of the goals of the prayer class is in order.
Most prayer classes are focused on explaining the structure of the davening. Once a worshiper understands that the siddur is a carefully organized document, with order and crescendos, the prayer service will become more familiar. Yet structure is merely the beginning of the educational discussion, not the end. Prayer classes can be extremely powerful tools to building the experience of prayer, if the curriculum is broadened. Below I suggest a number of class topics which have direct benefit to the prayer service.
1) Meaning in Structure. As noted above, educating about structure should be the first step, not the last, in prayer education. One can address broad issues of philosophy, concepts of God and personal belief while examining the order of the prayers. For example, what moral concepts underlie the Shma, and why does it precede the Amidah? One useful exercise is to ask the students how they might organize concepts of prayer: “If you were going to stand before God in prayer, how would you begin? How would you end? Why?” The students’ answers, in comparison to the traditional texts on this subject, can help engage worshipers in the meaning behind the structure. Knowledge of structure is only helpful if it is accompanied with meaning – otherwise, we learn the flow of a dance to which we cannot relate.
2) New Melodies. Congregations are often very protective of their traditional prayer melodies, and bristle at incursions. However, much of that hesitation is based on the unfamiliarity with the new melody. Teaching that melody on Shabbat morning would certainly interrupt the flow of the service, as well as take up precious time. However, teaching new melodies as part of a Friday night dinner, or even a weekday class, is very effective. At Kehilat Hadar (www.kehilathadar.org), a grassroots Jewish community I helped found, our prayer leaders for High Holidays taught new melodies at a Shabbat lunch before Yom Kippur. The result was a fun, accessible program which translated into a powerful High Holiday davening.
3) Synagogue skills. People often refuse aliyot in synagogue because they simply don’t know how to follow the choreography of an aliyah to the Torah. One time following Hadar services, I offered a class in the practical aspects of taking an aliyah. The class allowed people to practice saying the blessings with the actual Sefer Torah, without the pressure of “performing” in front of an entire congregation. Similarly, as an educator at summer camp, I offered a class on Hagbah (lifting the Torah scroll) to teenage girls. Most women in liberal synagogues decline the honor of Habgah because they simply have never been trained. This class allowed 15-year old girls, none of whom had ever lifted the Torah, to practice in a safe and supportive environment.
4) Body Movement. Many rabbis invite congregants to prostrate on Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur during the Alenu or Avodah service. Yet few people take the clergy up on this offer. Why? It is a strange act which they don’t know how to perform, and are concerned that they will stick out in the crowd. At Hadar, we offered a 6-week session on the themes of the Mahzor, closing with a class on the meaning of prostration. This helped accustom the students to a seemingly non-rational, un-modern act. At the end of the class, I invited people to try prostrating. I demonstrated how it was done, and then we all joined together. As a result, more than half the people at Hadar prostrated fully on Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, a physical act which added to the power of the prayer service.
5) Congregational Voice. Much of the magic of Jewish prayer comes not from the prayer leader, but from the din and hum of the congregation praying. While some prayers are sung together, many prayers in a traditional service are meant to be recited in an undertone, at one’s own pace. It is this act of reciting prayer out loud – “davening” – which allows worshipers to own the prayer space, rather than ceding responsibility to the prayer leader. Empowering the worshiper to pray out loud allows her to express emotion and to emphasize words or terms which are important to her as an individual within the congregation. Many liberal congregations have lost the art of “mumbling,” but it is one that can be recovered through education. People are often shy about mumbling in prayer, either because they don’t want to be the only one doing it, or they are concerned they will make mistakes reading the Hebrew and be “caught.” However, it is a skill that can be taught and practiced. Recently, I taught a class in which we chose a random verse from Psalms, and repeated it over and over again in different modes: faster, slower, one word emphasized, another word emphasized, louder, softer. By the end of 10 minutes, we had created a “mumbling” atmosphere with an otherwise unfamiliar verse.
Ultimately, prayer education is crucial for the revitalization of communal Jewish prayer. It is my hope that through thoughtful and creative services, learners’ services and classes, Jewish education will offer much to the thriving of Jewish prayer.
Elie Kaunfer is in his fourth year at Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he is also completing an MA in liturgy. A Wexner Graduate Fellow, Elie is a co-founder of Kehilat Hadar, an egalitarian community committed to spirited traditional prayer, study and social action. He is also a co-founder of Limmud NY and is on the advisory board of STAR: Synagogue Transformation and Renewal. The Forward Newspaper recently named him one of 50 Top Jewish Leaders.
This article originally appeared in the spring 2006 issue of Jewish Education News, published by the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education. Additional articles from this and other issues of JEN and other CAJE publications, as well as information about the organization, can be found online at www.caje.org.

10 thoughts on “Prayer Education: A Plan for Revitalization

  1. one thing I’ve noticed (in Orthodox environments at least) is that men mumble and hum and daven outloud…. and women do not.
    I think women never see it modeled by the women around them, and it’s hard to be the one to start mumbling outloud in a [relatively] quiet ezrat nashim.
    I would definitely take a “mumbling course” tho 🙂

  2. a hearty yashar koach to elie on a fantastic article!
    keep on doin’ what you do, man. and thatnks for saying you like the way i davven. i didn’t know i was being complimented by an expert 😉

  3. As usual, I agree with almost everything – but I do think stage directions should be done away with, as well as the raised bimah (where the rabbi presumably stands so others can see what s/he is doing). The atmosphere in Liberal shuls today is more often than not quite artificial – which is why people are afraid, for instance, of mumbling, or standing when others are sitting (or vice versa)
    My teacher, Rabbi Ezra Bick, once told me that at Kehillat Jeshurun, an old Orthodox Shul on the east side, it used to be forbidden to stand except when everyone was – the story was that when he stood during Torah reading, the gabbai approached him and said: “we do not stand here during the reading of the law” (sic). So its not a liberal thing, its a german thing. If we stop trying to herd (presumably uneducated) congregants around the davening and just start expecting them to be educated (o/c providing resources, etc.) then things will change.
    But this response is essentially redundant after Elie’s article.

  4. this article was inspiring. i have such a love/hate relationship with learnery services, but i realize that this feeling is a priviledge because i spent years attending a learnery service. so now i’m an old pro, but not everyone is.
    i love the idea of teaching people to mumble and hope to perhaps replicate this in my community. elie you oughta go on a mumble lecture tour, i’m not even kidding.

  5. Elie,
    Glad to see this set thoughtful framing of the issues reaching into the mainstream.
    It seems rather clear that learning the music, language, rhythm, and choreography is essential for having a comfortable prayer experience. I notice that the curriculum you are suggesting doesn’t have much specific content devoted to thinking about philosophical, ideological, mystical, or emotional approaches to prayer. I imagine this is assumed. Anyone who talks about specific prayers in a teaching atmosphere will give several lenses through which to approach the taught text. That said, perhaps there is some oppurtunity to include a piece of the prayer education process that is overtly meaning oriented.
    all my best!

  6. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (what I tell you three times is true): it’s never okay not to announce mourners kaddish, as it helps the mourners and quiets the talkers.
    Overall, I liked the article, but I question a few points. First, I don’t think that announcing page numbers prevents people from using different siddurim. Some places annouce multiple page numbers; and those who bring their own siddurim are likely to know where they are anyway. It prevents learners from using their own siddurim, but why would a learner have a strong preference for a different siddur? Second: being told that a given prayer was the most meaningful in a service would creep me out. Really. People have their own relationships to prayer. It’s one thing to acknowledge what halakha considers essential, but this seems different.
    When you complete the mumbling course, there should be an advanced course on shuckeling (sp?)!

  7. DT writes:
    Overall, I liked the article, but I question a few points. […] Second: being told that a given prayer was the most meaningful in a service would creep me out.
    I don’t think you’re “questioning” the article on this point; I think you’re agreeing.

  8. The Hadar model: minmizing the stage directions, using external classes to bring learners up to speed, and empowering and inspiring the knowledgable davveners works beautifully for a young Jewish community in the Upper West Side. The question is to what extent that model can be exported to the wider Jewish universe. The major problem is that adults with careers and families don’t necessarily have the time to attend weekly classes on the prayer service; and to the extent they wish to do adult education they may want to focus on other aspects of Jewish learning.
    I would propose two suggestions on how to adapt the principles of Hadar to the Jewish suburban hinterlands.
    First, there needs to be a committment in most synagogues to a multiple minyan structure. One-size-fits all davvening doesn’t work and tends to alienate both learners and experienced davveners. There needs to be space for a Hadar-style minyan as well as a minyan that meets the needs of less knowledgable Jews.
    Second, there needs to be a companion guide to Sim Shalom or whatever siddur the synagogue uses that is available in the pews along with a siddur and chumash. This guide should provide the essentials that someone would learn in a prayer education class – structure and choreography of the service, as well as meaning and history of the prayers. In addition, it should have traditional and non-traditional commentaries on the most important prayers. Such a guide would permit “real-time” service education without requiring the public interruptions that result in a disruption of prayer flow and a dissipation of spiritual energy.

  9. Such a guide would permit “real-time” service education without requiring the public interruptions that result in a disruption of prayer flow and a dissipation of spiritual energy.
    For Friday night, Chaveirim Kol Yisraeil does this well.

  10. The Learner’s service at the synagogue I go to utilizes passages from My Peoples Prayer Book, which includes commentary on the prayers. It does the basics, but it also leaves room for developing a different understanding of the prayers. Many people find it hard to pray, because they don’t believe in a G-d who makes the rain fall, because you pray for it.

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