Friday, April 8, 2011

What I learned in Catholic School about Jews and Prayer

This week, I went to Catholic School for the second time in my life. I accompanied some of my wonderful students, whom I love and respect dearly, to a new program that is called Friends in Faith, focused on building new and healing relationships between Catholics and Jews. This particular program focuses on students in High School, specifically in Eleventh Grade. The emphasis of the day was on some history of the Catholic Church and its well known Nostra Aetate, presented within the Second Vatican Council on October 28, 1965 under the papacy of Pope John Paul II. In fact the school we were at is named for him, considered for his remarkable strides in acknowledging and befriending Jews by many in our community and considered suspect or less than positively for not doing enough by others. The day was informative and interesting but this is only to provide context and some background information for the venue in which the subject of this post presented.

There were several presentations and then we met in small groups with students from the Pope John Paul II Catholic High School and students from an area Jewish Day School (Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy) and a facilitator. I was a facilitator of one of these small groups. We were given questions and prompts to aid in having a meaningful discussion and fairly early on, the following discourse occurred.

There were questions about prayer! Why do we do it, what does it mean and how is it handled in our schools. Now, having worked in Jewish Education for my entire professional career spanning 36 years (EEKS, has it really been that long?!!!!!), and specifically focusing for so much of that career on Day School education, Prayer has always been a hot topic of debate, especially in Community Jewish Day Schools that are pluralistic and not under the arm of any single denomination. Going through many types of programs, mandatory as well as voluntary, daily as well as monthly (connected to Rosh Hodesh), readying for weekly observances of Shabbat, so many questions come up. How can we have compulsory prayer? How do we make prayer meaningful? How do we create a prayer community? Which Siddurim do we use; which denominational model do we use? Mechitza or no Mechitza? Separate sitting or mixed seating? Do women lead or only men; who is counted in the Minyan? Do we take time to do something that is not meaningful? On this journey in one particular school with which I have had a long association, we have had kids plan the prayer experiences. This model has been shared and utilized in other schools as well. For anyone in education reading this, I highly recommend this model as it was the most successful of any I have observed.

I, as well as so many of my respected colleagues, have written tomes on the topic of Prayer. Personally, I created a significantly extensive and well developed Prayer Curriculum published by the Sholom Hartman Institute in Israel, incorporated Tefillah/Prayer in other curriculum projects published and utilized in schools across North America and elsewhere and conducted workshops on how we negotiate sets of experiences that are meaningful to our students, as well as follow spiritual developmental models for children and youth of different ages. There are creative services, meditation models and a plethora of opportunities including everything from Orthodox Prayer Meditation for which Aryeh Kaplan z’l was an important mentor to Jewish Renewal’s many different colorations of Prayer experiences.

So many questions about whether or not we believe in G-d, do we feel comfortable in a prayer community, the need for a meaningful prayer experience, why do we use a repeated script and so forth dominate these discussions. There is no end to these deliberations and many of us are greatly and increasingly perplexed, directly proportional to the amount of time dedicated to this topic.

So, what did I learn at Catholic School? The Jewish Day School students tried to explain their problems and their questions and their concerns about prayer in the conversation I had the honor of facilitating. The Catholic School students listened and then one girl just simply said, “We all go to Mass. We have to. It’s meaningful to some but many of us just sit there. That’s it.” The Jewish Day School students, in expected style, began to ask questions. Don’t you study the prayers? Do you discuss what they mean and try to figure out how they are relevant? Is there an alternative to the one Mass? And so forth….. The Catholic School students just shrugged. One particularly articulate young man explained that there is one way and either you do it or you pretend to do it. The Jewish Day School students were shocked!

So, here is my lesson. We as Jews expect so much – we expect LOTS from ourselves, from our religion and from our prayer! We want meaningfulness! We want to feel connected to something and do not want to go through meaningless motions (and will fight valiantly for this cause!). So much of our Jewish learning teaches us to do exactly that. In fact, so many formulated prayers that we include are the experience of others who have found this meaningfulness. We are frustrated, yes. We keep working to make our prayers meaningful, yes. Precisely because we WANT to feel something genuine and meaningful, we work at it; we don’t want to just go through the motions. This is one of our greatest collective gifts as Jews and it is also no doubt one of our GREATEST challenges! This is the lesson that was confirmed for me during my day in Catholic School.

My blessing to all: May we each find a meaning appropriate soulful way of dovenning – communicating with G-d in our community and within our own beings. Amen!

1 comment:

  1. Please note correction... this is a case of overdosing on too much information about the Catholic Church being conveyed at one time. John Paul II crafted Nostra Aetate but it was not his Papacy, not yet:

    The Second Vatican Council, commonly known as Vatican II, was the twenty-first Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church. It opened under Pope John XXIII on 11 October 1962 and closed under Pope Paul VI on 8 December 1965. Of those that took part in the council's opening session, four have become pontiffs to date: Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, who on succeeding Pope John XXIII took the name of Paul VI; Bishop Albino Luciani, the future Pope John Paul I; Bishop Karol Wojtyła, who became Pope John Paul II; and Father Joseph Ratzinger, present as a theological consultant, who became Pope Benedict XVI.[1][2]

    Thank you to Sandra Lilienthal for asking me to check this point.

    Shabbat Shalom all.