Confronting a spiritual crisis

Legacy 613, putting prayer at the forefront of Jewish education

By: Ilan Preskovsky

Within the world of religious observance, prayer holds a particularly special place. While Torah learning gives us greater understanding of what we’re doing here and observance of the mitzvot elevates and challenges our everyday existence, it is primarily through prayer – through what we call davening or tefillah – that we draw ourselves close to our Creator. At least, that’s the theory.

The reality today, sadly, is that prayer, and the resulting spirituality that comes with it, is often all too lacking in even the most observant Jews. Not so much in terms of the ritual of going to shul and/or praying three times a day (or more) – which, all things considered, has been enjoying something of an upswing over the past few decades – but in terms of the meaning that we find in this practice. While all aspects of religious observance can fall prey to dull routine, no aspect of Jewish life can become as tedious and meaningless as prayer, which is an almost unbearable irony considering what it’s supposed to represent in the first place.

I say this as someone who himself has all but lost the battle with finding meaning in davening and I say this based on limited, but not insubstantial anecdotal evidence from speaking with and observing others. Most crucially, I say this based on some actual empirical evidence provided by an independent study by Nishma Research in the USA that surveyed 4 000 Modern Orthodox Jews, aged 18 and up, and found that a meagre 32% of those under 45 found prayer to be meaningful. The number increased to a still rather underwhelming 50% in those older than 45, but the results are pretty clear: though it varies from person to person, true kavonah (focus, concentration, direction, intention) in davening is very, very hard to come by – and it’s a problem that’s only increasing with today’s youth.

Taking it back to school

Legacy 613 is an organisation dedicated to dealing with exactly these issues by putting tefillah back at the forefront of Jewish education in Modern Orthodox schools throughout America. Founded just a couple of years ago by Rabbi Zev Schostak, a hospital chaplain and former teacher/principal, Legacy 613 has worked with an increasing number of these schools to create special programmes to teach children about the meaning behind the prayers they are taught to recite day in and day out.

Rabbi Schostak notes that for something as central to Jewish living as tefillah, something that is at the very heart of Jewish spirituality, it is taught precious little to Jewish children as part of their foundational education. Not, as he puts it, the “mechanics of tefillah”, which certainly are taught to children, and at quite a young age at that, but the meaning behind these prayers and why we say them in the first place. This is all the more ironic as, in the age of ArtScroll and Koren publishers, the “how” of davening has never been easier – it’s the “why” of it all that has become so elusive. That simple, monosyllabic question is all that stands between life-affirming, meaningful prayer and empty, deadening routine. Not even the wealth of translations for these ancient texts provide much of an answer, but the real crime here is that it’s a question that is far too seldom so much as asked.

Starting off with six high schools, Rabbi Schostak and his staff took to forging programmes that would confront exactly this question; programmes that would affect the quality and meaning of the students’ davening and, in the process, profoundly affect the rest of their religious education by putting the “spirit” back into their Judaism. In a short period of time, major strides have been made in this area as more schools across the USA have signed up, including one in Toronto, Canada.

Tailoring to the needs of the individual

The true masterstroke of Legacy 613, though, is a keen self-awareness of the novelty of what it’s offering and of the individual needs of different students. Even when coming from the same Modern Orthodox hashkafa (philosophical outlook), students would still come to their individual prayers in their own unique way. As such, rather than just drawing up a single curriculum for all the schools to follow, Rabbi Schostak had his staff of educators work with the different schools to craft programmes that would resonate with the individual students. That Legacy 613 is still a “work in progress” is, incredibly enough, one of its greatest strengths.

Right from the start, for its inaugural 2016-2017 school year, they used feedback from the six different schools themselves to craft the programmes they would be implementing. Matters of the spirit are, by nature, not exactly an exact science, so the more input they receive from the schools on the pupils, the more likely that Legacy 613 would craft the right programmes for them. Further, Rabbi Schostak points out that in order for these programmes to work, they really need the support of the entire school administrations, rather than just random teachers, so including the schools only further ensures the effectiveness of these programmes.

Based on the input and support of the schools, Legacy 613 started crafting a number of innovative programmes that would tackle the “tefillah problem” from a number of different perspectives. On a most basic, logistic level, for example, they found that smaller prayer groups were far more effective based on various criteria – including age, ethnicity (Ashkenazi/ Sephardi), and studiousness – they would start off with simply creating an atmosphere that was more conducive to meaningful and undisturbed prayer.

With this seemingly simple logistical step, things would quickly start to progress from there. By having the students daven together in very small groups, a sense of familiarity and closeness develops between those in the same group. This is crucial, as it allows the various programmes and teaching tools to be implemented most effectively by creating a sense of openness and intimacy, both during and after davening.

In terms of enhancing tefillah during the morning prayers of shacharit, for example, one of Legacy 613’s most effective tools is in encouraging “sharing” between students in the group. This would include having the students bringing up their own challenges and inspirations that arise during davening. This encourages both a sense of self-discovery – of bringing one’s own, unique personality into words that are thousands of years old – as well as allowing each student to learn from his friends and contemporaries new and unexpected ways to tackle the same words.

Another innovation that Legacy 613 has introduced into the davening itself is what it calls “Explanatory Minyanim”. This, once again, takes the needs of the individual into account as these groups are tailored according to how much instruction the students need and even shortening the tefillah – within the limits of halacha, of course – to make it easier for those with shorter attention spans to concentrate fully on just a few prayers, rather than having their attention wonder across the full breadth of the average service.

Beyond the services themselves, Legacy 613 have also implemented a number of other initiatives that take place around the students’ school days. A combination of mandatory and compulsory courses would take place during breaks, during limudei kodesh classes, and outside of school hours and would focus on textual analysis, halacha, and, perhaps most crucially, trying to instil a greater sense of spirituality – of G-d – in the tapestry of the lives of these young people. These programmes actually vary quite a lot from school to school, as they are refined and redefined as they go along. What is clear, though, is that between these, shall we say, “in-davening” and “out-davening” programmes, real improvements have already been observed in the students partaking in them.

Bringing it home

Now, of course, this is all very well for American and Canadian kids, but what about our South African kids and, for that matter, what about ourselves? The good news is that while legacy 613 is, as it stands, restricting itself to North America as a formal programme, it does have a strong internet presence (visit and, according to Rabbi Schostak, Legacy 613 is happy to make its teaching material available to educators throughout the world. However, most immediately and simply, perhaps the fine example of Legacy 613 will inspire our own educational institutions (and shuls) to pick up the baton and offer lessons in tefillah as part of the limudei kodesh curricula and during school davening. It’s way past time for something like this.

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