When Rabbi Kenneth Schiowitz brought together 50 representatives from modern Orthodox high schools in New York and New Jersey earlier this month including educators from The Frisch School in Paramus and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and the Torah Academy of Bergen County, both in Teaneck he knew he was facing a challenge.
Inviting attendees "to reflect on how they are running their tefillah programs and share ideas," Schiowitz pointed out that while the problem they came to discuss centered on the disconnect between students and prayer, "the time allotted for tefillah can be just as frustrating for teachers, with a gap between what they want for their students and what they see taking place before them." Schiowitz is rosh beit midrash at the Ramaz School in Manhattan, which organized the conference, and rabbi of Shaare Tefillah in Teaneck.
Addressing the issue and keynoting the conference was Rabbi Jay Goldmintz, headmaster of the Ramaz Upper School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and also a resident of Teaneck, who noted that while some students find tefillah a meaningful experience, others find it tedious and irrelevant.
Noting that "the time allotted for tefillah, or prayer, in day schools should be viewed as a teaching opportunity," Goldmintz told the assembled educators that they should approach tefillah as they would approach teaching in general.
"It should be treated as a classroom," said Schiowitz, recounting the highlights of Goldmintz’s presentation, "and you should implement some of the techniques you would use in the classroom." In addition, he said, "you need to invest more in [tefillah]. Don’t rely on just one teacher; you need to staff it. Prayer leaders must develop a curriculum and be prepared to present and to speak."
Goldmintz also noted that since adolescence is a natural period of questioning, educators should not push so hard that those who seem to be rebelling won’t come back. "It’s a question of impact," he said, according to a summary issued by Ramaz after the conference, "and we need to make the passage through this phase as positive as possible." He acknowledged as well that it is unnatural to gather adolescents in a social setting, "in one room with their friends, and expect them not to socialize."
After the keynote address, Rabbi Herschel Schachter, professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and rosh kollel of the Marcos and Adina Katz kollel at YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, spoke to the group about halachic questions that may arise in restructuring prayer services for example, how the prayer leader can accommodate his obligation to daven with the need to stop and instruct students, and what parts of a service may be omitted to leave time for teaching.
Exit interviews reflected participants deep engagement in the issue, which Rookie Billet, principal of Ma’ayanot, called "one of the universal concerns of our age." Billet said that "while we currently have some ideas already in place, we will experiment with several additional ideas for spring semester, including dividing into two smaller groups for Shacharit . Our faculty who attended were energized by the experience."