Steven Finkiel, 14, of Elizabeth, a 10th-grader at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, used to slog through morning prayer.
“I would come into school, tired, get into davening, put on my tefillin, and just sit there. I would daven a bit and focus as long as possible, but I never really had anything to pray for,” he said.
But now, everything is changing for him.
“I started to learn about what I was saying in depth, what davening really was. Now I actually have something to pray for,” he said. “I can relate to it more; it gives it all a bit more meaning.”
Finkiel is one of the students in a new class on davening created by Kushner faculty. Combining unusual guest speakers with lots of back-and-forth, the new curriculum invites students to ask questions about worship in a quest to find meaning in their praying.
The curriculum emerged from a period of reflection about the amount of time students engage in prayer as compared with the amount of time they spend studying.
“Considering it is such a significant expression of Jewish life, we felt it requires the same degree of study,” said Kushner principal Rabbi Eliezer Rubin. He acknowledged that “there is no guarantee that kids from religious families who attend religious school necessarily understand religion on a philosophical or practical level.”
And while, in his experience, prayer is an issue “discussed widely” among his peers, such a curriculum is not widespread. “Many schools stress traditional Jewish study. But we see this curriculum as textual, philosophical, and practical. It fits neatly into our educational philosophy,” he said.
Guidance counselor and Jewish studies department teacher Rabbi Richard Kirsch has noticed a shift even in the last decade.
“I think students are more open to questioning why we do things,” he said. “When I started eight or 10 years ago, students were expected to show up, open up their prayer books, pray, and move their lips. We didn’t care if they didn’t understand.
“Now there’s more of an openness — we want to hear from you. Why are you struggling in prayer? Is it that you don’t understand? Do you find it boring? Do you not understand why we bow down certain times?”
On a recent morning, two non-Jewish speakers, Denis Murphy and Danny Lam, parents of children diagnosed with brain tumors, visited the class to discuss how they have used prayer to get through adversity.
Murphy — who founded Friends of Jaclyn, an organization through which college sports teams “adopt” kids with brain tumors — offered students a window into his world, which he said was “immediately turned upside down” when his lacrosse-playing daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of nine.
Amid brain surgery and deciding on protocols for chemotherapy and radiation, he said, there was prayer.
“You can imagine when your daughter is sick like this how important prayer becomes,” said Murphy, from Hopewell Junction, NY. “Everyone would ask, ‘What can we do for you?’ They’d send over care packages. I said just put me on every prayer list you possibly can think of.”
Jaclyn is now 15; the radiation treatments affected her cognitive ability and stunted her growth.
Devon, Lam’s daughter, wasn’t as fortunate. Diagnosed with a brain tumor at 21 months old, she succumbed to the illness last December at age five. Lam and his wife, Angela, now volunteer for Friends of Jaclyn.
“I prayed a lot,” Lam said of the eight months he and his wife lived in a hospital setting with their daughter. “I think a lot of us do pray, but a lot of it — it’s selfish prayer. We pray: ‘Please let me win the Lotto, please let me pass this test.’ It’s all about us.
“I don’t pray for that any more,” he said. “I pray for children who are battling insidious disease. I pray for you. I pray for everything outside myself — because I know if I can help and move forward, that’s God’s answer to me.”
Guests like these help the Kushner students discuss prayer openly, said Kirsch. They help them deal with such questions as: What happens if you feel God doesn’t answer our prayers? How does one make prayer more meaningful through kavana, or intention?
“These are basic, fundamental questions about what the meaning of prayer is,” said Kirsch.
Such questions have always been there, he said — the openness to discuss them is what has been missing.
For Finkiel and his peers, the class is having the desired impact.
“I can relate to it more,” said Finkiel. “Now I have a reason to thank God, and it will make davening easier. It gives it all a bit more meaning. When I pray, ‘Thank you God for keeping me healthy,’ I’m going to be thinking, ‘I’m not hungry. I do not have a brain tumor. I’m not sick. Thank God I don’t have a brain tumor.’
“It really did have an impact.”