A colleague of mine once referred to tefillah as the third rail of Jewish education. As irreverent as this may sound, it stemmed from a deep-seated concern that as Jewish educators we struggle with this area of the day school experience, not because it is not important, but because of its complexity and how hard it is to get it right.


Tefillah is hard. Even as adults we struggle with connecting with God during davening on a Shabbat morning. We try to find the right kavana (intent) to go with our keva (the fixed process of tefillah) and often miss the mark. I can only imagine what our synagogue rabbis are thinking as they stare at us from the bima while we are either grappling with this dilemma or are completely off task. Given how difficult meaningful, engaging tefillah is for adults, it is no wonder that adolescents also struggle with blending kavana and keva together in our daily minyanim.


With this problem in mind, we have begun a series of conversations at school to grapple with this challenge. Our Va’ad Tefillah (prayer committee) is a combined group of students and staff who are actively engaged in seeking solutions to this. The Va’ad Tefillah, with the support of The Jewish Education Project’s Day School Collaboration Network, has been using design thinking to address the often intractable problem of creating meaningful, relevant, and engaging tefillah experiences for our high school students. Through this design thinking process, we immersed ourselves in the situation by looking at it from our students’ points of view. We also sought inspiration from a variety of sources. With this in hand, we began to understand what tefillah experiences meant for them.


We then worked to frame our problem to create “how might we” statements that helped us better define the problems facing us in high school tefillah. We then imagined what could possibly be and collaborated to develop a series of prototypes to help us test our understanding, gain more information, and learn as we continued to work in the cycle of immerse, frame, imagine, and prototype.


Our initial prototypes were a series of alternative minyanim that allowed students to engage with tefillah in a different way. Here are the choices and descriptions that were available to students:


Regular Minyan: Similar to our daily minyanim, this larger group minyan will join together for a spirited davening.
Meditation Shacharit: How do I improve my focus, and organize my thoughts in tefillah?  Come to this Shacharit, where you will learn exciting ways to use meditation a mode of thinking to help you focus and direct your tefillot in new and exciting ways.
Words of Prayer: The siddur is an ancient combination of words from the Tanakh, with additions, adjustments and an overall organization made by our Rabbis through the generations. This minyan will take a close look at different prayers and we’ll discuss how each prayer fits into the Rabbis’ overall plan for the siddur, and how we can make sense of the siddur – personally –  as 21st century Jews.
Are You There God?: How can we discuss God? Why should we discuss God? What is God? How do we believe in God? (and what does that mean anyway!) This minyan will think about these questions and many other theological issues. Our goal is not to generate answers about God, but rather to startthe conversation about God.
Tech and Tefillah: Can the texts of the tefillot be communicated through modern means? How much of a tefillah would you tweet? We will explore using technology tools, like Twitter, PowerPoint, and Facebook, to help us gain greater understanding of the tefillot in the siddur.

Are these alternative minyanim the solution? Probably not alone, but they are a starting point. These experiences were followed up by a survey as we seek to design a better tefillah experience. Through this process, we hope to shift away from thinking about tefillah as an insurmountable challenge for the Jewish day school experience into one that adds meaning and relevance to all of those who participate.