Engaging in prayer

Engaging in prayer

Teaneck educator provides commentary to siddur for students

The High Holidays motivate many of us to devote a little more thought to our daily or weekly dialogue with our Maker. Sometimes that effort can be helped by a new siddur (prayer book), especially one geared to greater engagement.

Koren Publishers’ new “Ani T’filah Weekday Siddur for Reflection, Connection and Learning” features an English translation and foreword by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, and commentary by veteran educator Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz of Teaneck.

Intended for “the inquiring high school student and thoughtful adult,” Ani T’filah was published in partnership with Yeshiva University with the goal of effecting a more meaningful individual connection with the liturgy.

Rabbi Jay Goldmintz

Rabbi Goldmintz says his commentary provides a variety of approaches to each prayer and to each pray-er. He included personal anecdotes, textual insights, historical context, quotations, questions for self-reflection, and rules of ritual.

Rabbi Goldmintz, who has lived in Teaneck for 27 years, was headmaster of the Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan from 1999 to 2013. He now teaches at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck and in the doctoral program at YU’s graduate school of education.

“In recent years I became more and more interested in the subject of spirituality and religious development among children and adolescents,” he said. “I was surprised that it took me so long in my career to actually study this, and surprised even more to discover that no one in the Orthodox Jewish world had done much research on it.”

His own research convinced him that many people, especially educators, were looking for direction and connection in prayer (“t’filah” in Hebrew). He went back to school in 2005 and earned a doctorate on the influence of family environment on the religious development of children and adolescents.

“Those interests meshed well with my long-term interest in t’filah education, which is one of the biggest challenges that all day-school educators face,” he said. “I had been experimenting for years trying to find what works and what doesn’t, what expectations should be, what was impactful for kids and what was not.”

As a result of his articles on the topic, Rabbi Goldmintz “became a kind of go-to person for lots of professionals out there,” and so he was approached by Dr. Scott Goldberg, who is YU’s vice provost for teaching and learning and chairman of the Koren Educational Editorial Board for its new series of prayer books for children and teenagers.

“The truth is that I had already started writing long before,” Rabbi Goldmintz said. “I would write thoughts on slips of paper and leave them on kids’ chairs before prayers got started; I produced a newsletter for kids in the school so they could ask questions about prayer; I collected quotes and triggers that could be used during prayer services and devised different strategies for making t’filah more meaningful.”

Such strategies are sought eagerly. As he wrote on Lookjed, a Jewish educational listserv, “At its worst, t’filah has become a place where incredibly caring professionals find themselves becoming policemen. At its best, there is rote t’filah service taking place, but there is an overall sense that some part of the soul or heart is missing.”

Jewish schools are not only purchasing Ani T’filah, but some even are crafting lesson plans around the 805-page volume.

Rabbi Goldmintz has been gratified to hear “anecdotes about a teacher who bought a copy for herself, the 40-year-old yeshivish guy who was spotted using one claiming that it’s just what he was looking for, or the 82-year-old woman who said that it made a difference in her life just at a point when she had given up hope on prayer.”

He can’t say for sure if today’s Jews have more difficulty engaging with and concentrating on prayer than did past generations. “But I do think that any problems we have with prayer are symptomatic of a larger problem we have with belief, passion, spirituality, and connectedness. I think people crave the latter in their religious lives in general, and so need a portal to finding those within the siddur as well.”

Rabbi Goldmintz said he tried to make the commentaries and appendices both educational (Where are these prayers from, how do they fit together, what do they mean?) and meaningful (What does it mean to me in my life today, this morning or afternoon? How do I incorporate this into my being and my day?).

“The first part was an enormous amount of work and research, but the latter part was the most challenging,” he said, adding that the former chief rabbi of Britain’s translation makes the English rendering “very smooth and elegant and accessible,” though he was mindful in his commentary to provide alternative meanings because “translation is always an interpretation.”

Did the project enhance his personal t’filah experience?

“I run workshops for teachers now, and I tell them that you cannot teach t’filah unless you are striving to be a better pray-er yourself,” he replied.

“The same is true for parents. Our kids generally follow our lead and our passion, or lack thereof. I may know a lot more about the words and the structure of the siddur than I did before I got started, and probably know more than the average person, but in the end, as Rabbeinu Bachye said, the words are but the shell or peel; it is the fruit that one brings to prayer with one’s heart.

“In that sense, my struggle is no different than that of the average high school student or senior citizen.”

The Koren Ani T’filah Siddur is part of the Koren Magerman Educational Siddur Series launched in February 2014. The series will consist of four developmentally appropriate prayer books. Ani T’filah and the illustrated Koren Children’s Siddur, geared to kindergartners through second-graders, are available now.

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