Years ago I ran an explanatory/exploratory tefillah. It was mandatory, not optional. Some students appreciated it and wanted to stay, others found it curious and thought-provoking, while others outright hated it. That was to be expected. There were considerable limitations – we were bound by halakhic requirements as well as by time (our tefillah could not be longer than the school’s regular minyan.) The purpose was three-fold – to slow down the pace enough that students could actually pay attention to the words, to allow a few minutes for discussion of ideas related to general issues in tefillah, and to shake-up the experience so that it was not rote. Some of the activity was designed to make students think (there was unfortunately no time for discussion) while there were clearly other activities designed to create tefillah experiences.
As I wrote in a Ten Daat article many years ago, much depends on the kinds of resources (time, space, latitude, etc.) that the school is willing to invest.
I would like to share with you comments that yeshiva high school students made after participating in our Ohr Hadash Tefila workshops. The first comment was made by a 9th grade boy during our reflection after one workshop. I asked the students, “What have you learned here about yourself? What have you learned about tefilla?” One student responded,” I learned that I could relate to tefilla better if I had more time to think about it before and after I davened. The trouble is that we don’t have that time in school.” The other comments were made by 10th grade girls. I came back to the school a few months after the workshop to assess the effect that the one workshop had on the girls’ davening. One girl answered that she kept the work sheet that we used in her siddur and looked at it before she davened. “My tefilla has really changed because I focus on it before I daven..” Most of the girls said that “you can’t just have one workshop. We are busy with so many things that the effect wears off unless you keep it up.”
I think it’s critical to listen to these reflections when implementing tefilla programs. They are telling us how important time, reflection and an ongoing process is to tefilla. We have used the strategy of working with select groups that Rabbi Kaminetsky proposes (not yet with our Ohr Hadash program) when the object is that they become mentors for their peers, the other students. Our approach is based on the positive effects that peer tutoring can have and on a constructivist approach to education where we begin to pave the way and they learn through their own exploration and constructing. And it is based on Rav Kook’s approach to tefilla, making it meaningful by connecting it to our daily lives. We connect it to social and emotional competencies. It’s a spiral effect – the tefilla affects how they develop these skills and the skills affect their tefilla.