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I’ve stopped praying — but I can’t tell my students.

From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. Now our columnists are helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in 2020. Send questions to [email protected].

Dear Bintel,

I teach college students about the spiritual importance of prayer in Judaism, daily prayer and tallit and teffilin. During the pandemic I’ve barely put on tefillin. I’m feeling down, and kind of blah, and when I feel down and blah the first things to go are those sorts of spiritual practices. Is it wrong that I represent these things to my students and they think that I practice them on a daily basis?

Especially for young people, integrity is really important, particularly when they look to older religious leaders in their lives. I’m uneasy when I envision that imagined loss of trust they would feel if they knew the truth. But also I don’t want to make this about how I am feeling — this class is about centering their educational experience. It should be about how they are feeling. They’re also a very aware and considerate group of students, who would have lots of thoughtful things to say about feeling spiritually blah. How do you educate and represent things when you yourself are not practicing?

Just Not Feeling It

Dear Not Feeling It,

Of course any group of thoughtful, conscientious young adults are going to be all over a conversation about how to pray when you are not feeling it. Those conversations are much more familiar, and often easier to engage with, than encounters with a Jewish prayer practice. It’s a fun topic. But is that the conversation you want them to be having?

It sounds like there is still a lot for them to learn about Jewish prayer, what it means, and what it could mean for their lives. Making it about the struggle, before they’ve even developed the practice or learned the basics, would indeed turn the focus of the class on you, and away from them. I don’t think you need to actively lie, but like a good parent whose children begin to ask them about their drug use, don’t proactively bring it up. Just answer the questions they ask. That’s how you show integrity and honesty without eliding your current experience with their foundational learning experience.

I mean, in general, I do think there is a big difference between knowledge of a Jewish practice and practicing that practice. Somebody who learned all the Jewish prayers as a child, and still knows the rules and practices inside out, but has not prayed in years wouldn’t be the right teacher for a class about how to pray. That’s not the case for you at all. You’re still very close to the practice, and know how to present the material with the enthusiasm and nuance it deserves, even if it’s not what you feel right now.

You can use your current experience, however, to be empathetic to students who have doubt or are struggling with their practice. Even if you aren’t detailing your own experience, talk to your class about lapses in practice or difficulty in prayer — just like you’re experiencing. It shouldn’t be the main point of your class, but make space for students who might be struggling just the way you are and wondering if that means prayer just isn’t for them.

And hopefully teaching your students and getting them excited about these practices will be a spiritual boon to you, as well. Maybe your students will even make you feel less alone in your current struggle.

In any case, students are coming to your classes to learn more about Jewish prayer practices. You are providing them with that information in an engaged and enthusiastic way. I think you’re in the clear!

But keep track of that blah feeling, okay? Social isolation is really hard, and if your disengagement bleeds into others of your life, or persists, then reach out to others.

Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to [email protected].


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