These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

New Year’s Intentions: Tefilah and Focus

Posted on January 17, 2019 by Amy Gold

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This was originally distributed to the families of Epstein Hillel School, January 2, 2019. Amy Gold participated in the Pardes Tefilah Education Initiative Retreat in the Boston area. To register for our June 2019 conference visit our Tefilah Education Conference for Day School Administrators homepage.

January first brings New Year’s resolutions.

Commercials on the radio, social media, and television implore us to commit to making the new year better. Eat healthfully, exercise more, spend less time on screens, achieve work/life balance – the list goes on and on.

When you look up the word resolution, there are synonyms such as intention, aim, and plan. Though I’ve never been one to make New Year’s resolutions, I do like the sentiment of being more intentional. The Hebrew word for intention is kavanah and it often is associated with tefilah (prayer). We talk about praying with kavanah – with intention, sincerity, and reflection. I recently attended a seminar led by the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies with our Jewish Studies/Hebrew teachers on the topic of tefilah education. We explored ways to make our students’ experience with tefilah more meaningful while also giving them the skills and knowledge to feel comfortable in any setting across the spectrum of Jewish practice. We were gathered with fellow Jewish educators from local day schools including Maimonides, Rashi, and Metrowest. Though our schools differ in religious practice, we interestingly found many commonalities when speaking about the challenges and opportunities that teaching tefilah presents. Pardes has established eight essential principles of tefilah education and our schools were challenged to prioritize three.

I’m pleased to share with you the goals we chose: 1) Students will acquire the ritual and liturgical skills to become active participants in tefilah. 2) Students will engage with tefilah as an important resource for personal growth, character development, and the fulfillment of emotional, psychological, and existential needs. 3) Students will approach tefilah as a significant means of connecting to the Jewish people and creating community.

A particularly powerful aspect of the workshop was the opportunity to pause during the day for reflection and prayer. Each opportunity was outlined with a hachana (preparation) to help us transition into a more reflective mindset. Shacharit (morning service) was framed by an opportunity for gratefulness of things big and small. The birchot hashachar (morning blessings) remind us to affirm that which we might take for granted; clothing, freedom, physical and mental strength, energy, and the ability to see and hear the natural world around us – to name just a few. It’s important to acknowledge these gifts while we are feeling well physically and mentally. The preparation for mincha (afternoon service) was inspired by the prayer Ashrei, and it encouraged us to pause amidst our work and consider how to improve the rest of the day: What do I want to change or continue between now and the end of my day to feel happier/more content? How can I recharge to face the next few hours of work and family responsibilities at home positively? This can be a very powerful two minutes amidst our hectic schedules. Our evening preparation for maariv (evening service) focused on the idea of endings/beginnings. The maariv aravim prayer reminds us of the transition from day to night and light to darkness with stars in the sky. As the day closes, we can ask ourselves: What did I accomplish today? What will I begin with the next sunrise? How can I best prepare myself for an opportunity or challenge of tomorrow?

We lead very busy lives and it can feel next to impossible to slow ourselves down. It’s one of my greatest challenges; there is always one more email to answer/write, the ever-present to do list which greets me when my laptop boots up, and there is always an errand for my home life waiting. The practice of pausing to take just a few minutes to reflect and take stock during the day is incredibly powerful. After attending this workshop, I have been inspired to add some kavanah (intention) to my morning, afternoon, and evening. I’ve changed a total of six minutes in my daily life and the effect has been 10 times that. Whether the words come from traditional liturgy or from your heart, I hope these ideas will inspire you too. Wishing you health, joy, and fulfillment in 2019.