I recently had the privilege of presenting to students at a Catholic Independent school on the upper North Shore. I was accompanied by a colleague from Moriah and we were asked to present to Years 11 and 12 Studies of Religion students who were studying Judaism and thought it would be much more interesting learning Judaism from those who observe it than simply reading about it from a textbook.
Upon arrival, I asked the receptionist what time school started, and she explained that it all depended on the day. My colleague and I looked at each other and smiled, it seemed that we had something in common. Our timetable at Moriah also differs depending on the specific day of the week. We have various assemblies including Student Life sessions, House meetings and Year meetings throughout the week. In addition, on Fridays (in winter) we finish a little earlier due to Shabbat. Each of these factors add further complication to the structure of the school timetable. Yet, despite these and many other variables which are necessary, and which contribute to changes in the timetable, there is one feature which is fixed, constant, and always begins each day, every day – Tefilla.
Tefilla (Prayers) is our first formal lesson of the day throughout the College. Students gather in various groups in the Early Learning Centres, Primary School and High School to daven (pray), as we have done for thousands of years.
Our younger students focus on singing some of the more common, well-known prayers and as they develop, so does their Tefilla repertoire. To accommodate this progression, we also use different Siddurim which are age and stage appropriate. Our students begin learning about Tefilla in the Early Learning Centres and can proudly sing a variety of Tefillot (prayers) as well as songs about HaShem, Shabbat and the various chaggim (festivals). To observe these young children singing with passion, enthusiasm and choreographed hand and body actions corresponding to the words is a real pleasure.
As you walk along the corridors of the Primary School in the morning, you cannot avoid the sounds of the students as they sing, chant and read various prayers including Modeh/Modah Ani (which often begins the Tefilla and reminds us about humility and gratitude as we thank G-d for allowing us to experience another day), Adon Olam (in which we recall the merit of Avraham, the first person to address G-d with this title and the one who instituted the morning prayers) and Baruch She’Amar (a famous prayer which contains a series of phrases blessing G-d).
In addition, our Primary School students can sing the Shema and recite sections from the Amidah as well. I have the pleasure of attending their Friday morning Shabbat Tefilla service and I often tell the students that one of the reasons I enjoy this is because it sets the tone for what we know will be a beautiful Shabbat, especially after their singing of Lecha Dodi and Shalom Aleichem.
Watching and listening to our students daven from the back of the auditorium, I often think of the famous words recited by Bilaam (Bamidbar 24:5), who was asked to curse the Jewish people as he viewed the camp of Israel from afar. Instead, he blesses them, “Ma Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov…” (“How goodly are your tents Jacob…”), a reference to the modesty and sensitivity demonstrated by the arrangement of the Israelite camp in the wilderness and by their behavior towards one another. This also serves as an important reminder to us about the way in which we need to interact with others.
In our High School, we have a variety of Tefilla groups available. Our Hugo Lowy Synagogue hosts a full Tefilla service which is open to the public and often used by communal members and parents of the College. Both males and females are welcome to attend this service. We also have other services which offer the opportunity for a complete Shacharit service including Torah reading on Mondays and Thursdays for our students and staff. These services are led by our students and we teach our students to actively participate and lead various parts of the service. We also have a Tefilla service that is not as comprehensive as those that offer a full service, although they do read the Torah and include Hallel and Mussaf on Rosh Chodesh.
There are groups that focus on singing and learning new tunes to our ancient prayers, groups that host discussions on relevant topics related to some of our prayers or to the weekly portion and groups that incorporate meditation techniques as part of the service. We also have groups that are facilitated by guest Rabbis, local madrichim, staff and even senior students.
As you can imagine, coordinating such a wide variety of Tefilla groups can be challenging and there are some students and parents who question its worth. As a Modern Orthodox, Zionist school, we believe that Tefilla is a central component of each and every day. It is the pulse and heartbeat of Jewish spiritual life and sets the tone for religious practice for the individual and the community. Our daily prayers trace their roots back to our Biblical forefathers. When we pray, we become part of an uninterrupted chain of communication between ourselves and G-d.
Even if we were to place aside the religious obligation, healthcare professionals support and advocate having some time in the morning, before the day begins, to think and reflect on the day ahead. Elisha Goldstein, PhD, co-founder of the Centre for Mindful Living in Los Angeles, conducted a national research study in 2006 that found that taking some time out even once a day had significant effects on wellbeing and stress. Further research suggests that having this time in the morning helps to reduce blood pressure, lessen headaches and boost mental health1.
There is also research to suggest that those who wear Tefillin may receive cardiovascular health benefits. The results of a study measuring participants’ vital signs proved that those who wear Tefillin recorded a measurable positive effect on their blood flow, associated with better outcomes in heart disease2. In addition, Steven Schram writes the following in the Journal of Chinese Medicine (Number 70, October 2002): “Regardless of the belief system behind the procedure (of putting on Tefillin), it seems clear that putting on Tefillin is a unique way of stimulating a very precise set of acupuncture points that appears designed to clear the mind and harmonise the spirit.”
Tefilla is often translated as Prayer but the actual shoresh (root of the word) is pallal meaning to connect or to judge oneself. We provide our students with 25 minutes, each and every day, and encourage them to use this time wisely to daven, to reflect on their own thoughts, actions and behaviours, and to take some time out of what is bound to be a very busy day. Support from parents in ensuring our students gain as much as possible from this period is also very much appreciated. It is my hope and prayer that all our students benefit spiritually, mentally and physically from our Tefilla program.
About the author
Ronnen Grauman is the Acting Head of Jewish Life and Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW
1. The Brain on Silent: mind wandering, mindful awareness and states of mental tranquility
Vago and Zeidan, 2016
2. American Journal of Physio-Heart and Circulatory Physiology