Here is a recipe for meeting the challenge that you presented. It is not something you can do overnight. Nevertheless, it is something that will have a long term affect of Davening in your school and in your community. (If I've made similar points before on the list, I apologize in advance.)
It probably does not come as a surprise to hear that there are four aspects to Tefilah that must be taught. They are:
You do not need me to explain or offer advice regarding the teaching of the meaning of the Tefilot or about teaching the Halachot of Tefilah. If I’m wrong, please correct me and I’ll throw my two cents in about those subjects as well. On the other hand, the third and fourth aspects are worth a word or two.
- The meaning of the Tefilah texts. This includes translating the words for those who are not native Hebrew speakers, but much much more. This does include making sense out of the structure of the Tefilot and understanding each section as a whole unit.
- The laws – Halachot – of Tefilah. It is crucial to teach these Halachot the way all Halacha should be taught: A. The establishment of the principles on which the laws are based. B. The individual laws – with an emphasis on the practical application.
- The proper environment for Tefilah. If you want to grow a plant, you must have the right pot, filled with the proper amount of soil. The appropriate nutrients must be added regularly. The plant must be watered at regular intervals. The same rules apply to Tefilah.
- The fourth aspect of Tefilah is the experiential one. How are we to experience praying? What are we supposed to feel?
The right pot for growing Tefilah is a good strong Jewish community. The pot has to include a community that is Shomer Mitzvot, a community that actively encourages Mitzvah observance. The pot also includes a home where Mitzvah observance is important and Jewish values are actively taught.
The proper soil is the Minyan. To prayer properly – with Kavanah, etc. – requires the proper milieu: A Minyan – big or small – of people who are serious about their Tefilah, who come to Shul to Daven not to socialize, who Daven with enthusiasm and concentration.
From time to time, the soil must be watered. The student should see on Shabbat and especially on the Chagim that an extra effort is put into the Tefilah, namely the communal singing and the greater effort invested in Davening with Kavanah. This is what Chazal meant when they said, “We do not stand up to pray (Shemonah Esray) out of sadness, or laziness, or laughter, or idle speech, or light headedness, or wasteful talk. Rather, [we stand up to pray] only through the joy of doing a Mitzvah” (Berachot 31a).
This third aspect of teaching prayer is often ignored. And as a result, the teachers and the “school” complain that the kids don’t want to Daven and that they are not interested in Davening. Do they see their fathers and mothers Davening with Kavanah? Where do they Daven on Shabbat? What is the Davening like in their neighborhood Shul? Do the people socialize during the prayers or do they “really” Daven? If the pot and the soil are “bad” ( I apologize for the sharp word) and the proper nutrients are not provided, then how can we expect our students to pray with enthusiasm, with seriousness and with Kavanah?
How do you change the environment? It is not easy. But it can be done. Form a Sunday morning Minyan of fathers and sons. Talk to those who attend. Before Davening begins, take no more than five minutes and explain what you want to accomplish. Set out the ground rules clearly. Each week teach something new that relates to “how” to Daven, not the meaning of the words or the Halacha. Rather, teach then something to do that will enhance the experience of the Tefilah. Explain that Rome wasn’t built in a day and that it takes time to improve the experience of Tefilah.
Once you have something going, then you need to select those fathers and sons who are beginning to Daven more seriously and to go to them personally and ask them to help form a Shabbat morning Minyan. To prevent this as being viewed as a breakaway from the main Shul, you need to get the Shul Rabbi’s permission – again explaining to him the purpose, which is to make people more serious about their praying. Explain, that over time, these parents and children will be rejoining the regular Shabbat Minyan.
This Shabbat morning Minyan should be run just like the Sunday morning one. The first rule is that everyone must come “basically” on time (within 10-15 minutes of the announced starting time). Each week, the first five minutes are devoted to learning a new way to enhance the performance of the Tefilah.
Only after this Minyan meets for a month or two and builds a strong prayer environment – no talking, serious concentration, enthusiastic singing – do you begin to invite others, fathers and sons and mothers and daughters (who can be included in the Sunday program as well), to join. Once again, those “new” participants must be spoken to before coming. They must be primed and be ready to play by the rules. Over time, all of the students and their parents can be added.
Slowly but surely, you will create a proper prayer environment at school. Invite the parents who participate on Sundays to join the daily Minyan in school. All they have to do is come and Daven with the same intensity and concentration they use on Sundays. These adults will become the living models that are sorely needed. Ultimately the growing cadre of parents and children who discover what Tefilah is really about will change the nature of the Minyan in Shul and in the school.
If you succeed on this level, then you will discover that the students will be more open to learning about prayer. A person will only show true interest in learning something that they value. (Yes, kids learn to get good grades and to get into a good college – but that motivation is extrinsic.) This is particularly true about Torah, for Torah and Mitzvot require intrinsic motivation.
Now we can move to the next level. Our Day Schools and Yeshivot – on all grade levels, including post high school levels – do not teach the “experience” of Mitzvot. We teach our students the laws of prayer. They know which prayer comes before which and when to stand and when to bow. We teach them the meaning of the words. But we do not teach them what they should feel when they say the words. We do not expose them to the necessity of having a true spiritual, God experience while prayer or while performing any other Mitzvah.
A big part of the problem is that we teachers – along with everyone else – have become spiritually inured or deadened. Like all other modern people, we rarely have a true outpouring of emotion. Only when tragedy strikes, heaven forbid, or on the rare occasion of extreme joy do we actually emote and display our emotions. As a result, we search for emotion in books and TV and movies and rock music. Thus, we learn to feel vicariously.
Torah demands that we seek God. God gave us 248 ways – paths – to use to get to Him, to be with Him, to encounter and experience Him. Prayer is one of the more potent paths. (Learning Torah is the most potent and quickest way to encounter God, but that is a different theme that desperately needs to be explored.)
So how do we teach “experience”? We don’t. You cannot tell someone how to feel. But the Torah commands us to love God! You ask. Yes, but as Reb Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl explains, we naturally learn how to love another person. We love our parents or a brother. Then we learn to love a spouse. From the Torah’s perspective, this is just laying the groundwork to loving God. If you know what it is to love your wife then you will understand what it takes to love God.
This is why the third aspect – the proper prayer environment – is so important.
What we can teach is what tools to use to achieve the moment of oneness and encounter with God. Interestingly enough, this is truly what Halacha is all about. Halacha is not law in a secular sense. Halacha is the means for going from point A to point B. “Halacha” from Lalechet, to go or to walk. Thus, Halacha is really a set of tools that a Jew is to use to function as a true Tzelem Elokim in this world and to reach out and encounter God while living in this world. Once this is realized and understood, then one’s perspective regarding Halacha changes.
A two-part guide to teaching “Strategies and Tactics in Improving the Experience of Prayer” can be found on my web site: http://www.davidderovan.com/?page_id=327(The site is devoted to Divray Torah and everything in freely accessible. Enjoy.)
With those sources in hand you can begin to teach the experience of Tefilah – or how to enhance the experience.
In the end all four aspects must be present simultaneously. Our students must know what the words mean; they must know the mechanics of Jewish prayer (when do what); they must have a good solid environment for praying; and they must learn how to use the available tools to create the moment of God encounter.