Parochial Prayer: A Call for Students to Claim Their Power

By contributing writer Yardena Gerwin for KidSpirit's Power issue.

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Three hundred forty-five years ago Roger Williams declared, "forced worship stinks in God's nostrils."

Williams was a 17th-century English Protestant theologian and a proponent of religious freedom. He pioneered the separation of church and state, a crucial social innovation in 1640 that now poses a unique challenge to modern parochial schools. Schooling is mandatory for every child in the nation, but prayer is not. Yet parochial schools must somehow coerce students into praying. This would be an achievable goal if every student agreed that prayer is critical and there was a school-wide consensus on how to pray, but that often isn't the case. Schools are faced with the impossible task of imparting the value of praying, specifically the importance of daily prayer. In this situation schools often fall into a survival mode, using their administrative power to force students and teachers to show up in a room and recite words without facing the question of meaning head on. This allows students to passively disengage and choose powerlessness regarding the shortcomings of their prayer services without getting involved or feeling personally responsible to make a change.

I attend a pluralistic Jewish day school, which nobly tries to engage all students in daily prayer. Though the school is unyielding on prayer being mandatory, they try to make services inclusive by offering multiple options for prayer. I, for example, participate in the "creative expression" service. We only recite the basic prayers, leaving time for less structured activities such as art, music or documentaries. But the truth is that the significant reduction in the number of separate prayers to recite does not seem to encourage creative worship in the majority of the students who attend the service with me.

The girl sitting next to me is one of the few with her prayer book open; it's carefully angled to conceal that she is texting on her iPhone. Some students across from me are discussing what they did over the weekend, while a few others grasp onto index cards, trying to cram for our next vocab quiz. Certainly none of the students have a sole agenda to sabotage any type of prayer that enters the room; they just don't see the relevance of the prayer service forced upon them each morning.

Perhaps this disconnect between students and their prayer experience is partially due to the structure of the service itself. When most of the responsibility and direction falls on the teacher, students do not feel responsible for the service they attend. I have found that when students complain about how boring or irrelevant our minyan (prayer service) is, we immediately blame the teacher in charge. It is easier to say that the adult in charge of leading the service is doing a bad job than to acknowledge that we students have the power to take ownership over our prayer experience, yet choose not to.

It is easier to say that we use our phones during daily prayer because the minyan is bad, rather than to admit that a room full of students playing Doodle Jump might be exactly what is making the minyan experience bad in the first place. We would have to recognize that our behavior determines our environment. We would have to look at texts and contemplate our relationship to religion. Some of us would even have to admit that we agree with the way our parents raised us (which, as a teenager, is one of the hardest things to do), while others might surprise ourselves by finding meaning in an entirely new approach.

I have come to believe that all of this would occur if students were permanently in charge of how our services were run. Not for the day or the week, but for the whole school year. Some might protest that this is just too much for high school students, and it is true that most of us can barely look past the essay due next month or the quiz at the end of the week. It is simply easier to give all of the responsibility to the teacher and then blame that teacher for failing to lead a creative service that is relevant to students. In high school prayer services, students often rebel by talking, sleeping, and snapchatting because they understand their behavior is a means of showing the administration and teachers that they disagree with the forced prayer methods.

But that approach has never been proven to work. Instead students should use their collective power to force a conversation with the adult prayer service facilitators in order to change the service model to one that can only function when everyone participates and is engaged. This issue of prayer is especially pressing in pluralistic day schools attended by students from a wide spectrum of observance and spirituality in their respective family lives.

I have been raised in an observant conservative Jewish household, and I frequently wrestle with daily prayer, which is very familiar to me. Therefore, I can readily see how a less observant student, without a regular relationship to a prayer experience outside of school, could find services onerous when thrust upon them in school. Many of my peers also struggle with the idea that in order to contribute to their Jewish community they must believe in God. This notion makes many teenagers, who harbor doubts about God, feel alienated from their own religion and community.

A friend told me that her family member said she should not fast on Yom Kippur if she did not believe in God. I feel fortunate to have a father who strongly identifies as an atheist and yet is more observant than I am. My mom is the polar opposite; she strongly believes in God and even identifies with many of the Jewish superstitions, such as a belief in the ein ha rah (the Evil Eye).

I also feel fortunate that from a young age I have been taught that there is no single "correct belief" in Judaism. It is important for all teenagers, especially those in parochial schools, to know and be taught that absolute belief in God is not necessary for religious observance, spirituality, or communal engagement. It is acceptable to constantly doubt God while appreciating the values and morals provided within Jewish texts or admiring the structure and community that the Jewish religion provides.

The prayer experience that I often face at school makes me thankful for my own relationship to prayer.

At my own synagogue everyone who comes each Shabbat (Day of Sabbath) makes a commitment to be there. My family and I attend a smaller, separate service within a larger established synagogue. Our service does not have a hired rabbi (although many members are rabbis), and members take turns leading services, reading from the Torah, or offering brief thoughts on the weekly Torah reading.

I can pray at this service because it is a space where people rethink their own spirituality, and look at their own lives through different lenses and viewpoints. All of this reflection leads to constant tinkering with parts of the regular service, such as how we study together and what we do on holidays. This level of seriousness and intentionality makes me feel that I am in a space where I'm accepted and can safely have my own prayer experience along with a community of people who likewise are questioning and seeking meaning.

I am lucky that I have been raised by people who see religion as a source of joy and knowledge, as something that has to constantly be reexamined. People who, for example, stay up until four in the morning on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot studying texts, and value finding their own personal interpretation of the passage. I have seen the power of community, when dozens of people packed into my house during shiva to help my family mourn my grandmother's passing. I have seen the power of community when the minyan that I attend every Saturday spent seven hours dancing to celebrate the conclusion of the cyclical reading of the Torah.

Because of these experiences, I have come to see prayer as a gift and not a burden. My relationship to my religion has been molded by all of the adults in my community who have shown me that it is something holy and valuable. My community has ensured that religion will always be some part of my life, but who is making sure that this is being done for other kids, especially day school students who may see religion as something they will shed as soon as they graduate?

In my school, students who are taking a course with a difficult teacher find a way to learn the material outside of the classroom. Students should not treat prayer any differently. My school is in NYC where there are multitudes of prayer experiences and options. If a student did not like her school's egalitarian option but disagreed with how the creative minyan was run she could spend Friday night at a renewal service or a pop-up minyan in Riverside Park, or try prayer yoga. Students do not need to revel in their victimhood; they have the power to leave their classroom, to worship profoundly and insist on transforming daily prayer.

Rabbi Joel Alter, a family friend and director of admissions at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, who has over 16 years of pluralistic day school experience working in schools in Baltimore, Washington D.C., and Boston, believes that prayer and religious courses in school are not implemented for short-term effects but the influence they can have on students in the long run.

"Prayer, liturgy, religious community -- these are all things that if modeled well with children can leave a positive impression, even if the kids are rejecting it soundly at the time. Adults who have religious commitments know that most of the time those are seeds that are best planted with children and adolescents, and you hope that they will take root later on."

Rabbi Alter excellently explains the perspective of most adult day school administrators who have their backs pushed against the wall by their students' passivity. Though uncomfortable, they consign high school students to four years in a spiritual wasteland with an eye towards middle-aged spirituality.

Jewish day schools run the risk of creating alumni who identify as Jews but have not put effort into fully developing that spiritual, communal, and ritual identity. The model for our schools should primarily ensure that young Jews are a generation of students who see their religion as a basis for community, joy, or purpose.

It is unfair of administrators to use their power to avoid discussion of prayer's meaning with their students. Given this dynamic, students cannot depend on their facilitators to take the first step towards a conversation. They need to use their power to hold prayer leaders accountable. Together we must shift the model to one in which students in parochial school need to constantly engage in a dialogue about the importance of daily prayer and the religious courses that last throughout their high school years. Teenagers need to discuss why they chose to go to a Jewish day school. If it was a decision made by their parents, why is it a family priority?

Teachers should facilitate, support, and empower students in creating and sharing their own ideal prayer experiences, and encourage teenagers to use the many Jewish texts such as the Torah and Talmud to find meaning and guidance in their own lives. If teachers don't, students must take control of their own prayer experience and force a partnership with their administration.

It is not acceptable for children to go through Jewish day school without encountering something that is applicable to their own immediate lives. Day school communities, composed of teachers and students alike, need to find a way to cater to the students that stand before them, and not the adults they hope to have fostered 10 years from now.

As a student currently navigating this system, I sincerely hope we do.

Yardena Gerwin is an incoming junior at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, a pluralistic Jewish day school. She is the co-president of her school's Interfaith Club and a Teen Advisor for Girl Up, a campaign of the United Nations Foundation. She spent two years living in Israel but now lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her parents and sisters.

Yardena initially developed this essay as a participant in the Interfaith Center of New York's Learning Together youth fellowship program, working with a diverse group of New York high school students to explore the role of religion in city schools.