Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Guest Post: The Vietnam of Day School Ed

You read the title correctly!  This post is authored by Michael Feuer, who is on the faculty of Sulam Yaakov and whom I recently met teaching a course titled Prayer: the inner journey that leads outward.  I welcome your reactions.  
The Vietnam of Day School Education

When I heard a respected educator apply these words to prayer, my jaw dropped. But after the shock faded, the precision of the phrase started to play on my imagination. Given that I share the sorrow and fear over the “field situation” which provoked the comment, but not its hopelessness, I figure some reflection is in order,  so – why Vietnam?!

Educators and community members rule the day, unengaged students rule the night. Our children are not absent from prayer; we can make a minyan and the shuls are full on Shabbat. But we grade prayer as attendance, and praise the appearance of focus. It’s true, sitting quietly is a praiseworthy habit in today’s culture. But we are not teaching them to cultivate silence, but to pretend to say words.

What are we fighting for anyway? Only a real soul-search after Gd and a lot of prayer can answer this question. How many teachers and parents have a mature, living relationship with Gd and an active engagement with our soul? How many of us find strength in prayer and have tasted its pleasure? If these are absent from us, or not deemed relevant,  then what are we asking from our students? Teacher’s prayer groups are the weapon of the next generation.

In context of the liturgy, this conversation becomes a minefield. Tracing a path through questions of doctrine, obligation, authority and tradition without losing your company seems hopeless. And yet, these very issues form the backbone of the Eighteen Blessings. Perhaps prayer is the primary context created for this struggle and we should encourage our students to take the fight there. If they don’t feel safe struggling with Gd, Torah and Am Yisrael then what kind of relationship can they build?

In asymmetrical warfare, victory is not achieved through force. Prayer is not an act to be imposed, it is a lifestyle to be cultivated. Teaching it is a battle of hearts and minds. We must invest in the context of prayer as well as its content. This means devoting more time for praying and more resources for learning. It means developing a model of mutual awareness and spiritual mentorship between all members of a school – staff, faculty and students. At its core prayer is the pursuit of relationship, and as such is the ultimate communal effort.

Awakening the emotions in service of prayer is essential. Are our classrooms vessels where students feel safe to share their hearts? To we encourage journaling, spiritual chevruta, giving and receiving of blessing?

The siddur is a complex and powerful tool for awakening the soul, connecting to Am Yisrael and turning to Gd. It must be engaged as an instrument to be mastered, and not as a book to be read. Repetition becomes practice when the students sense they are picking up a relationship where it left off each time they pray, and just not doing it all again. 

The attempt to reduce prayer to a deliverable educational product is bankrupt. It must be replaced by a critical dialogue meant to cultivate consciousness over the question of prayer. In order to accomplish this we have to be prepared to take risks, and even lose battles. But that’s what you do when you’re committed to winning the war. 
Michael Feuer has rabbinic ordination from the Sulam Yaakov Yeshiva, under the guidance of Rav Dov Channan and has spent much of the past two years thinking intensively about the topic of tefillaSince making aliyah in 2001, he has been Program Director of a post-high school yeshiva, taught history, Jewish thought and Bible in several Jerusalem yeshivot and midrashot and halacha at the Pardes Institute.


  1. There are two goals: cultivating mechanical skills (fluidity, nusach, translation, historical context, etc.) and encouraging spiritual growth. Schools are tasked with doing both. Perhaps shuls or religion teachers should do the latter while other teachers should deal with the mechanics. Once the mechanics have been mastered (and that can be assessed)ore emphasis can be placed on kavanah and less on keva, but even young children can be encouraged to develop intentionality.

  2. When it comes to the "hearts and minds" I think many administrators will happily settle for Nixon's response.

    1. Seeing as that's another topic that gets totally inadequate treatment in day schools, perhaps one should consider the link between the two most passionate acts of relationship that a human is called to engage in

  3. Having run a morning minyan in a pluralistic day school for nearly 20 years, I can tell you that students are hungry for spirituality and God-talk. They want more than the mechanics, they want their hearts to be engaged. The biggest mistake educators make is to focus on the keva and ignore the kavannah. By making t'fillah a class (with grades, rules, etc.) we turn off students when they are most eager to explore. Engaging their hearts and souls isn't someone else's job, it is ours.