Guest Post: Jewish Girls and Prayer

See below for background information and glossary.

Commenter Abbi sent me her response to a discussion about prayer for girls in a
mixed school. Should girls pray in the minyan alongside the boys, or as a separate group? What should be our goals for educating girls about tefilla and minyan, given that most grown Orthodox women will not attend a minyan, especially during the early childbearing years?

Abbi Adest wrote:

The following was in response to a query on the Lookjed Jewish educators list that asked how to help middle school girls who were having trouble with tefilla. The response included the following quote:
“A majority of our girls do not
daven in women’s only tefilla groups, nor are most of them likely to do so.  Thus, it is important to teach them to have a meaningful tefilla in the context of a minyan.”

[Abbi continues] You say that your quandary is that tefilla is simply harder for girls. Then you make two assumptions: that the majority of your girls don’t daven in women’s tefilla groups nor are they likely to do so in the future. Have you asked the girls why tefilla is hard for them and whether they would be interested in davening in a girls’ tefilla group occasionally? Sometimes a heart-to-heart with students will elucidate many of the issues.

Second, let’s be honest about grown-up Orthodox women and tefilla:  If and when they grow up to be such women, b’ezrat Hashem (God willing) and if and when they are married with small children, just making it to shul on Shabbat for kedusha or even the last bits of musaf will be a huge triumph. For many (certainly not all) a few mumbled brachot in the morning is all that can be managed. So, the connection between Orthodox women and minyan is tenuous at best. But why should those future circumstances have any bearing on their tefilla experience now, when they aren’t encumbered by family and/or work responsibilities?

I think the biggest problem is that you are approaching girls’ tefilla as a corollary to boys’ tefilla. Boys are practicing to become active participants in adult tefilla, which makes sense. Girls are practicing to–what? Practicing to get 3 kids out of the house for shul Shabbat morning would be an interesting challenge, but not really appropriate for middle school girls.

I think the goal of tefilla for girls in middle and high schools should be to develop their own personal spirituality and relationship with tefilla and Hashem, and part of that is feeling involved and invested in some kind of group tefilla. If you already have a group leaving to study the deeper meaning of tefilla a few times a week, I’m not sure why it would be a problem to have a girls’ tefilla group leaving once or twice a week. Having it on Rosh Chodesh would make the day and the tefilla experience even more special, in addition to emphasizing the connection between women and Rosh Chodesh.

Finally, it’s essential for girls to have a female spiritual role model, within the context of tefilla, to provide them with a dugma ishit (personal example) of how to balance the challenges and responsibilities of being an Orthodox woman. From my memories of growing up in day school, tefilla was the sole domain of rabbis. You might want to involve female staff, if that’s not already the case.

The idea is help them strengthen and develop their spiritual selves for when they are faced with the responsibilities of the grownup world, and for when they can’t make it to minyan because of child-raising responsibilities.

I’d also like to point out that girls who study in single-sex schools like Bais Yakov never daven with a minyan, (and actually daven (pray) in de facto girls’ tefilla groups, when you think about it) and they seem to have no problem davening with a minyan when appropriate. [MiI: i.e. they are able to follow the expanded service.]

Background and Glossary:

According to Jewish law, men are required to pray three times a day with a minyan (quorum) of ten men. Women are obligated in prayer, but exempt from the public requirement.

Tefilla: Prayer.
Minyan: Quorum of ten men, required for certain public prayers.
Shul: Synagogue.
Kedusha, Musaf, Brachot: Examples of Jewish prayers.
Rosh Chodesh: The first day of the Jewish, lunar month.
Daven
(Yiddish): Pray
Hashem
: God.
Women’s tefilla group: A group of ten women praying together that may add some, but not all, additional prayers that are recited when men gather for a minyan. In the discussion above, it is presented as a compromise between having girls or women pray individually, or having a secondary role in a minyan of men. However, there are a limited number of such groups around the world. My town has 300 Orthodox synagogues and no women’s prayer group, except on some Jewish holidays.

Please let me know if you found this glossary/background information helpful.

For women who grew up in an Orthodox background, what was most helpful (or not) in shaping a positive attitude toward prayer?

Photo Credit: Brett Wagner

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Comments

  1. Eleanor Q. says:

    I think this is a really interesting issue. I would think that if middle school age girls develop more of a connection to Tefilla, when they are older that connection may drive them to get to shul earlier (or at all) and stay connected to the davening rather than the kids group/kiddush aspect of shul. Its also a good example for girls to see their mother’s interested/involved with davening, I think it expands a girls view of the roles she can have within the community.

  2. so, I’m an orthodox woman, grew up reform/unobservant, became observant in college. I now have 3 boys, 6 and under, and make it to shul, if I am lucky, for davening about 1x every 6 months. Usually my husband takes the older boys (groups and babysitting) while I stay at home with the baby who is too young for either.

    While I don’t have daughters, I do feel that I am missing some sort of real connection with davening and spirituality, primarily because I came to this late and never had any formal instruction in tefillah. whatever I do, I’ve picked up over the years.

    As an adult within the orthodox community, I would like to see the girls of our community educated so that they feel a strong desire to daven, regardless of what everyone else is doing. This is so when they do have young children, they find time to make it a priority (which if you don’t have the connection, you aren’t going to do)I’m not saying they have to do 5 hours of tefillah a day, but to find 5 minutes to sit down and make brachot is possible. and seriously, if the people who are at home with the kids don’t focus on tefillah, how will the next generation of kids know that it is important.

    I love the idea of formalizing whatever tefillah instruction is going on in school for both genders. I love the idea of it being an important, integral part of the day so that once these kids are out of our homes and on their own, they do make it a priority.

    when my boys are older, I want them to find time to make minyan in the morning, but once they are out of my house, that is going to be something they have to want to do on their own. if I have a daughter, I want her to find the time in the morning to daven (with a minyan if she wants, but on her own if necessary) becuause that part of what makes your day.

    I don’t know that I have any solutions, but I think formalizing tefillah as a class, with clear insturction, including history and such might go a long way towards making it happen

    Abby

    • mominisrael says:

      Hi Abby,
      I think prayer is hard in our society in general, whether or not you grew up in a religious environment. All of the elements you mentioned are important–emphasizing prayer in the home, experiencing it positively in school, and learning about it formally.

  3. Abby, I’ll echo what MII said. I grew up “FFB” and I truly loved davening as a teenager and young adult (my father was the ba’al Tefilla for the high holidays and in general he inspired a lot of my love for tefilla). As an adult with young children, my davening habits sound a lot like yours. And I have the same desires as you do for my daughters- I really want them to love tefilla as much as I did (and do, in a perfect world with about 5 more hours in the day). 🙁

    When I wrote that, I think I was more reacting to the out of hand dismissal of girls’ tefilla groups by the original author of the query. He seemed to assume that these were automatically inappropriate for Orthodox girls because that’s not how Orthodox adult women should or do pray.

    I say, why shut off what could be a valuable educational tool for girls having difficulty with prayer?

    Eleanor: I think the issue with adult women is not really a lack of drive to get to shul, it’s more the logistics and constraints of raising young children. I would love to get to shul at 8:30 shabbat morning and daven the whole time. Unfortunately, I just can’t with three small kids.

  4. Tired of Arguing says:

    Abbi, Eleanor–

    For me, personally, yes it is a lack of drive to get to shul. I like davening and it is more often inspiring than pro forma, but after spending all those years at home with small children, getting the table set and everything, davening at shul seems somehow irrelevant. And we belong to such a good shul. Nowadays, whenever I go, I find myself annoyed at the slow pace on certain sections and the bullet-train pace of psukei dezimra, which is one of my favorite parts of davening b’yechidut. After years of not finding the mechitza an obstacle before I had kids, I now find it very distracting not to be able to see what’s going on. We have a thin curtain, which makes me feel like I’m developing cataracts. In addition to which, I have a slight hearing loss, which makes it difficult to understand divrei Torah in Hebrew (my Hebrew is quite good) without seeing the mouth and face of the speaker, so either I feel frustrated or my attention wanders.

    As to the next generation, I have one grown daughter who loves davening at shul and two teenagers who don’t like to go.

  5. Abbi,
    I love the idea of women’s tefillah groups, and if there was one in my community, I would make it a huge priority to attend. I participated in one in college, and it was probably the most connected I’ve ever felt (we also did a women’s megillah reading).

    I think that the best part of a women’s tefillah group is that it is a formal gathering, regardless of what exactly you are doing. You feel like you presense adds something specific, and lets be honest, within the context of orthodoxy, a woman’s presense at davening does not matter.

    If your school has morning tefillah and your grade gathers together and the teachers as well, and it is an important time period, than you will see it as important, something to be focosed on, not rushed through

    Abby

  6. This is a great topic. Tefilah is something I have struggled with over the years, and with small children, it is not something that I can prioritize in the foreseeable future, BUT, I can say that I think that painting women’s tefilah gatherings with a broad brush as something “other” and inappropriate sadly throws the baby out with the bathwater.

    Abbi, I particularly like how you posit that girls in all-girls’ schools grow up with a de facto female tefilah gathering. I can say for my part, having gone to a coed elementary school and an all-girls high school, the latter was far more conducive to a feeling of significance in the process of tefilah. In elementary school, once we were separated by gender after 6th grade, we davened “with the boys” in the school’s shul for Rosh Chodesh and other significant times. It felt stilted and awkward – suddenly our voices were muted and we were innocent bystanders at best, a subtle nuisance to be ignored at the worst. No role whatsoever, and this was an MO school.

    In high school, we were all girls, so there was no hierarchy on the tefilah front. That is where my identity took some shape in tefilah – though this is also due to being older and maturing.

    My daughter is 5 and is in an all-girls school that I’d say was the best choice for us now but is not in line with our hashkafot on all fronts. She delights in being the “chazanis” (and I cringe at her pronunciation, but them’s the breaks sometimes) and is a very happy, full participant.

  7. “we davened “with the boys” in the school’s shul for Rosh Chodesh and other significant times. It felt stilted and awkward – suddenly our voices were muted and we were innocent bystanders at best, a subtle nuisance to be ignored at the worst. No role whatsoever, and this was an MO school.”

    Raggedy, this reminds me of being in Brovendar’s and when they brought in this “Porta-minyan” of ten yeshiva boys for certain times of the year (selichot and Purim maybe?). Ten boys in the front and 100 girls in the back of a mechitza!!! It was insane.

    What you were getting at about girls schools is also how I felt. Why dismiss something that can have such a positive effect on a girl’s spiritual self-image because you view it as “pas nisht”? (inappropriate)

    Abby, I was a chazanit once for a women’s tefillah group and it was an amazing experience for me. There was no kaddish or kedusha. Just women davening in unison with a shaliach tzibur. It was one of my best teffilah experiences ever.

    TOA- Yes, the irrelevance of shul is what I was not-so-subtly hinting at in my post. That’s why I couldn’t figure out why the original query author thought it was so essential for girls to know how to daven in a minyan.

    I do think davening as a whole tzibbur is important in an ideal world, but I think the way the average Orthodox woman’s life works out, it doesn’t really turn out to be so.

  8. Tired of Arguing says:

    Abby & Abbi–You rredikels, you!

  9. The irony is that in the more RW (BY type) schools, where there are no boys around, the girls do daven in a women’s (or girls’) tefila group. What else is it when girls gather as a group, say some parts aloud, and often are led by a chazinit? In fact, the group davening priority actually trumps halacha in their view. This actually bothers me more than the grouping debate because it does get the girls to be more lax about davening.

    Whereas boys daven in the minyan in yeshiva and then eat breakfast, girls are assumed to have breakfasted at home before they daven together as a group. These schools that are so machmir on tznius, etc., take a great leniency in telling the girls just to say brachos (which I don’t quite get as they could then rely on just a bakasha) before eating breakfast. This is set as lechatchila, and my daughters’ teacher told me she follows this practice still, though she, obviously, is not delaying davening because she is going to be part of a group. Thus the girls learn to laze about before pulling themselves together to daven, and will, inevitably not make sof zman — not because they are busy with young children, but because they just get a sense that it doesn’t matter when they daven. And I know women who find time to go out for breakfast even and have regular household help for even a small family who consider themselves exempt from the obligation to daven.
    BTW, you can see my post on women’s obligation at http://kallahmagazine.blogspot.com/2009/01/prayer-is-not-just-matter-of-heart-but.html

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