The Making Prayer Real Course
Rabbi Mike Comins
The following pages contain my practical advice for getting the most out of the Making Prayer Real Course curriculum. Feel free to email me to ask questions or discuss strategies for your community: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Teaching the Course vs Utilizing the Materials
The Making Prayer Real Course was designed for maximal impact on the prayer lives of the students (and teachers) with the lofty goal of changing the culture of prayer for the better in our communities. Accordingly, it is a rich, intense curriculum, 20 sessions in length.
At the same time, teachers who taught the course realized that they can use the materials successfully in other, less-demanding frameworks. Most of the sessions work well as stand-alone lessons, and the five-minute “Conversations” videos were specifically edited for use outside of a class on prayer.
In Pedagogic Strategies, I discuss the “spiritual dynamics” approach that guides the curriculum. Please read this document. It will help you to decide if you would like to teach the Course as presented, or utilize the materials in other ways. Even if you do not use the MPR approach in your teaching, it will help you to understand and utilize the lesson plans.
The curriculum includes over 40 five-minute videos useful in many venues beyond a class on prayer, such as adult education classes, Confirmation classes, community retreats, Havurah gatherings, parent meetings, divrei Torah for committee and Board meetings, etc. These videos also answer the need for compelling, accessible Jewish content for clergy-less gatherings.
Presentation and Format
How do synagogues present the MPR Course?
In our pilot program, one synagogue taught all 20 lessons over a 22-week period. Others held a weekly class spaced over the academic year. Most taught the curriculum over two years, meeting one to three times monthly. One synagogue presented each module as an intensive; one month on, one month off.
Some taught the entire curriculum. Others chose the lessons most relevant to their community. Unbeknownst to me when I began, the curriculum turned out to be highly flexible. Most lessons work well as stand-alone sessions.
Should I teach all 20 sessions?
The MPR Course was created to change the culture of prayer in our communities. If this is your primary goal, it is recommended that you teach as much of the curriculum as possible in a consistent time frame. When the theory behind the MPR approach to deepening prayer is presented to students, which only makes sense as part of an ongoing class, the ability of the Course to transform individuals and communities increases exponentially. While most lessons stand on their own, the sum is greater than the parts. Having said that, teachers are encouraged to adapt the curriculum materials to their specific needs.
Outreach and Publicity
Synagogues have used the curriculum within already existing spirituality groups or educational frameworks (adult B’nai Mitzvah is a popular choice), others have used the curriculum to attract new students and begin a spirituality group.
Teachers have been surprised by the higher-than-expected enrollment that the course generated in the majority of pilot congregations.
Rabbis report that giving a High Holiday sermon on prayer, quoting from the Making Prayer Real book, is an effective way of recruiting students. Inviting an appropriate Scholar-in-Residence around the beginning of the year (Slichot is popular) is also helpful.
Framing the MPR Curriculum
As mentioned above, framing the MPR Course in the Spiritual Dynamics approach is critical. This is accomplished in Session 1: screening the Core Priniciples video, Session 2: When Prayer “Works” and Mochin d’Gadlut, and Session 6, Prayer as a Practice. I originally located Prayer as a Practice as Session 3, but found that students were anxious to dive into the material and didn’t want to wait.
If at all possible, it is useful to attend a webinar in which I demonstrate the “When Prayer Works” activity in Session 2. (Or watch a recording.) I am available and delighted to speak with you before you begin the course.
We envision a workshop atmosphere where students feel safe and free to experiment with different modalities of prayer, often outside their comfort zones, without the expectation that each student travel the identical path. Some will prefer traditional prayer, some personal prayer; some will enjoy song, others will not; the list goes on. All should feel supported rather than judged. The teacher is critical is helping to establish an atmosphere of collegiality and empathy between students.
One of the advantages of watching videos with various viewpoints is that the instructor can join the discussion with the students as a participant, agreeing or disagreeing with a given speaker. The teacher need not feel obligated to defend this or that opinion. Clergy and teachers can enjoy the workshop atmosphere of the class as a fellow traveler on the path with the students.
Download, Don't Stream
You can avoid the vagaries of wifi and the Dropbox video player by downloading the videos and presenting them from your computer or tablet. (Not only is the Dropbox video player finicky, it will stop playing your video after 15 minutes.)
The videos require active listening on the part of the students. Ask students to watch with notepad and paper, and write notes after listening to a segment if the speaker said something they found important, or strongly disagreed with, in order to facilitate the discussion that will follow. Instructors can briefly stop the videos between segments to allow students to write a few words.
Customize the Videos
Each class is its own world, and teachers will naturally customize the Lesson Plans to fit their needs. The videos can be customized as well. In most of the videos, each segment has a title and a number. Especially with the longer videos, teachers may choose the segments that they wish to present to the students, and quickly skip the others. Teachers can use this method to customize the videos to the concerns of the students and the teacher, as well as to shorten the videos if time is an issue. The transcripts have time stamps to facilitate this process.
Transcripts allow the teachers to efficiently prepare for classes. However, we recommend that teachers watch a video at least once before presenting it to the class or choosing segments, as the written word does not always convey the power or tone of a given speaker.
As in any class, the teacher is critical in establishing the lines of appropriate sharing. Prayer naturally lends itself to the most intimate details of a person’s life. One tool is for the instructor to ask if a particular practice is effective, fruitful, easy/hard, helpful/not helpful, and why. This allows students to discuss a prayer practice without discussing the content of their prayers or thoughts.
A New Approach
Most of the recent work in transforming synagogue worship, such as Synagogue 2000 and 3000, addresses what happens on the bima and other changes in programming that the leadership might make. The Making Prayer Real Course compliments this approach by addressing the individual praying person. The curriculum challenges people to take ownership of their prayer lives, and provides them with the tools to do so.
This leads to changes that are dramatic and subtle at the same time. Students report sea-changes in their experience of prayer. To the outward observer, however, the effect is subtle, as people participate in the same service they attended previously, only now experience prayer differently.
Can the MPR Course change the culture of prayer in my community?
It will be several years before we can answer the question with authority. What we know now from the pilot classes and other teacher reports, is the following:
Changing One Heart at a Time
My hypothesis is that change occurs over time as a growing, core community of skilled and motivated daveners creates a connection with clergy and an atmosphere for soulful prayer. This might well lead to changes in the way services are conducted. And it might not. The primary change agent is not what happens on the bima.
The process is labor intensive as it invests in the individual. The culture of prayer is changed one heart at a time. The MPR Course does not offer a quick fix. (If there is one, please let me know!) However, the effects are deep and long-lasting.
I welcome your questions, comments or concerns!