By Rabbi Perry Tirschwell
Executive Director, NCYI
Ask any Jewish day-school educator about the greatest challenges with teenage students, and he or she will inevitably answer, “Davening.”
The difficulties that teenagers face in prayer are summed up well by a comment attributed to Rabbi Yossi Adler of Teaneck: “Teenagers today don’t know Who they are praying to, what they are saying, and they don’t have anything to ask for.”
I was therefore delighted to see the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur, a new educational siddur for high-school students and thoughtful adults. This siddur carries the subtitle “A Weekday Siddur for Reflection, Connection, and Learning” and features commentary by Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz. Indeed, it is a major step forward in addressing the obstacles faced by both students and educators alike.
Opening up the siddur, I can quickly see why Koren Publishers is so well suited to take on this endeavor. In their signature layout, each phrase of the prayers appears on a separate line and there is ample white space on each page, which lends to reflection on the meaning of the words. In addition, references to the State of Israel in the commentary and inclusion of tefillot for the governments and armies of Israel, Canada, and the U.S. speak to people raised in the Religious Zionist community.
The Ani Tefilla Siddur is inviting. And it’s just the right size. It includes only the weekday davening, which is great because the addition of Shabbat and yom tov tefillot would have made it cumbersome. (The Shabbat edition is planned for later this year.) The light-colored cover (not the standard grey, black, or brown) sends the subliminal message that this isn’t “your grandparent’s siddur.” Koren’s clear and attractive font, with the sources of the prayers printed alongside the text, and its striving for aesthetic and textual perfection, complete the package.
Rabbi Goldmintz, who is widely considered the expert on teenagers and tefillah, authored the commentary in this prayer book. The breadth of his work is highly impressive: Rabbi Goldmintz quotes sources from Gemara and Rishonim, Chassidic masters and Aristotle, Rabbi Munk and the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Breuer and Rav Schwab, Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rav Kook, Rabbi A.J. Twerski and Rabbi David Aaron, Rav Aviner and Elie Wiesel, an astronaut and an obstetrician, Readers Digest and a famous gentile scholar of religion. His personal story about a Ramaz trip to the Lebanese border (p. 237) is particularly inspiring.
The four separate commentaries that run throughout this siddur—Iyun Tefilla, Hilchot Tefilla, Biur Tefilla, and the truly innovative aspect of this siddur, Ani Tefilla—are unique. Since the goal of the Ani Tefilla Siddur is to help the student make the prayers relevant and personal, the questions in bold are remarkably helpful. These questions, such as “Look outside. What is the weather like today? Don’t take it for granted.” (p. 91) kick into high gear in the Amidah, where there are multiple thought-provoking questions on each berachah. “What chesed did you do for someone yesterday? Whom can you reach out to today?” (p. 143). “Have you ever been to Jerusalem? Did you feel something special there? Try to recapture those feelings.” (p. 171).
There are powerful messages in the various commentaries, such as the suggestion that “Eizehu mekoman shel zevachim” was included in davening because it’s a chapter of Mishnah with no disagreement between rabbis, which helps one reflect on the importance of peace as one begins his day (p. 53). Other insights are particularly meaningful to teenagers: “The full capacity of one’s understanding cannot be measured by standardized tests such as SATs or IQs” (p. 88), and “The study of the sciences represents man’s education about G‑d’s presence in the world. Science can be a religious quest.” (p. 95).
Each weekday aliyah has questions next to it—a novel idea. The two addenda in the back of the siddur, “Some Frequently Asked Questions” and “Suggestions for Enhancing One’s Kavanah,” are perfect for the type of intellectually motivated but religiously uninspired students to whom educators have previously given books on Jewish philosophy to read during Shacharit.
A wise decision was made to write more commentary on the sections that teenagers are more likely to say (e.g. Baruch She’amar, Ashrei, Birkot Kriat Shema, Shemoneh Esreih).
In his introduction, Rabbi Goldmintz suggests that students utilize the format of Shemoneh Esreih which speaks to them each time they pray. Therefore, Minchah Shemoneh Esreih features one berachah (and no commentary) per page to encourage reflection and writing notes of your own—a brilliant innovation. Ma’ariv, for those who prefer the traditional layout, is printed the standard way.
There is always room for improvement. Beefing up the Hilchot Tefilla commentary throughout would be great for the “Wise Sons,” including explanations of why we stand for Mizmor l’Todah or Yishtabach, why Lamnatze’ach is omitted on certain days, etc.
An oddity is that the long Tachanun, arguably the hardest prayer for most anyone to say, is accompanied with an introduction but no commentary. I have also seen that photos and art are recent additions to other siddurim, which may speak to certain students more than the intellectually stimulating questions.
My suggestions aside, I highly recommend this siddur for students of all ages. Especially as students are now ending their school year and may become lax in their daily davening, this will add a much-needed dose of inspiration. And for the adults out there, the Ani Tefilla Siddur will recharge your spiritual batteries like never before. v