In an effort to make prayer time more meaningful to students in its middle school, Golda Och Academy in West Orange will receive two years of consulting from the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators in Jerusalem.
Enabled by a grant from the Avi Chai Foundation, GOA, which is part of the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter day school network, is one of five Jewish schools in the tristate region to be chosen to receive such consultation.
“We were invited to join Pardes in this really interesting project,” said Christine Stodolski, GOA upper school principal. She said school leaders want to make tefila, or prayer, “engaging and exciting for kids in a way that is meaningful for them. We are in a strategic planning process with Pardes to revamp and improve our middle school tefila program.”
Although she acknowledged that “there is a rote level to prayer, we want it to be an educational opportunity to learn about the prayers and what they mean and why you say them when your do. We want to get back to thinking about how we can make it both a prayer time and an educational moment.”
For middle school students at GOA, prayer time is scheduled on Monday and Thursday mornings and Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in the afternoon.
Stodolski told NJ Jewish News that the focus of the Pardes consultation was chosen because “there is a feeling that the middle-school students and where they’re at developmentally requires some close attention to how they are experiencing and interfacing with tefila.”
In contrast, “with younger students, the process of learning songs and connecting with a teacher and engaging from that perspective works, and there is less need to feel that this is an imminent issue.” And for high school students, she said, “we offer more options for kids to get engaged with prayer.”
For these reasons, she said, it seemed apparent that middle-schoolers “hadn’t had a lot of attention.” The Pardes center — which is part of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies — “held some think-tank sessions with schools over the past few years, and that was the conclusion they came to. Middle school was the place that deserved attention.”
The consultation process will begin in December, when a small group of GOA teachers and prayer leaders will join Pardes representatives for a seminar in New York. Webinars will also be offered, and visiting educators will offer consultation sessions at the school, Stodolski said.
In addition to GOA, the other day schools that will receive the Pardes consultation are the Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford and the Carmel Academy in Fairfield, both in Connecticut; the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan; and the Luria Academy of Brooklyn.
Stodolski said she believes GOA was selected because the school already has a relationship with Pardes and because the center wanted a Solomon Schechter school involved in the process. The other grant recipients are either pluralistic or affiliated with Modern Orthodoxy.
During the upcoming two years of consulting, Stodolski said she expects “to gain a better understanding and a more clearly defined set of goals and priorities for our tefila time.” The school will design a program “to meet those goals and priorities so there is alignment between what we want kids to get out of the experience and a way to make sure they are having that experience.”
Susan Wall, codirector of the project and director of professional development at Pardes, agreed; prayer and prayer education, she said in a press release, are among “the most challenging aspects of the curriculum. Through our recent efforts to professionalize the field through training teflila leaders and developing sound approaches and realistic, measurable goals, we have seen how schools can positively impact their tefila experiences.”