Prayer is apparently becoming less meaningful to many Orthodox Jews, as well as to Jews in general, but a pioneer program being tested in a handful of yeshiva high schools — including Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station — is hoping to reverse that.
An organization called Legacy 613 (the 613 references the number of mitzvot in the Torah) is behind the program, which was launched in the 2016-17 school year after a web-based survey of almost 4,000 modern Orthodox Jews 18 and older showed that:
- More than 60 percent of those under the age of 45 didn’t find prayer meaningful.
- Only half of those 55 and older found prayer meaningful.
- Just 18 percent of men ages 18 to 34 attended synagogue on a weekday morning, compared to 41 percent of men 55 and older.
“Prayer is about establishing a relationship with God,” said Rabbi Zev Schostak, the founder and director of Legacy 613, noting that the concept seems lost to a generation. “They [pray] because they feel some obligation to do so … but they don’t really connect with that.”
Legacy 613 has developed a high school curriculum that aims to make prayer meaningful to younger Jews, he said.
Some basic tenets include small-group instruction and discussion periods about what the prayers mean and what they mean to the students.
“Once the kids get into a discussion, it leads to all sorts of things,” Schostak said. “The kids are talking to God, not just talking about God.”
As part of Legacy 613, Kohelet Yeshiva implemented several initiatives aimed at enhancing the tefillah experience. Those included a tefillah class titled “Jewish Outlook,” special minyanim throughout the year, an assigned seating system in the Beit Midrash, and a newly created tefillah curriculum.
The “Jewish Outlook” tefillah classes for ninth- and 10th-grade students met three times a week for about six weeks.
Meantime, a freshman minyan, a singing minyan, a Sephardic minyan and a special minyan for students who had difficulty davening were added.
And a tefillah curriculum was developed that included week-long minicourses with topics such as “Does Davening Work?” “Biblical Sources in Tefillah” and “Tachanun Workshop.”
Rabbi Aaron Horn, who is the high school dean of students at Kohelet Yeshiva, said the reception to the program seems favorable and a growing number of students are attending the optional minyans.
“Connecting to davening in the 21st century is very hard for everyone,” Horn said. “Yeshiva high schools across the country are tackling the problem. The fact that they’re doing a national program is encouraging.”
Horn said the school has tweaked the Legacy 613 program and will likely continue to do so. He noted that the program is designed to be fluid and the feedback from other participating schools is helpful to everyone.
“One of the benefits I see of working with Legacy 613 is getting to work with veteran educators,” Horn said.
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