Creating a Tefilla Environment: Personal and Institutional Priorities

by: Zvi Grumet

This article was originally published in Ten Da’at 5,2 (1991), pp. 39-40.

Imagine that your son is taught to read the Cyrillic alphabet (although he doesn’t understand the Russian language), and instructed to read thirty pages from The Gulag Archipelago, in Russian. It would certainly be a challenge. Imagine then that he is asked to repeat this daily for five years. Given that you don’t think the assignment particularly intelligent, you let him know (in subtle ways, of course) that he need not take particular care in fulfilling it. As the years pass he is expected to increase his speed, while no heed is paid to his accuracy. Upon entering high school, the ultimate insult is delivered- his ninth grade teacher is furious that he reads from Solzhenytsin with such a lack of feeling!
While this may sound ludicrous, it is an unfortunate description of the way our approach to tefilla is perceived by many of our students. At a young age they are required to perform rote reading in a language they barely understand. As years go by, they are “mainstreamed” into minyanim in which they are expected to race through long passages in the siddur at breakneck speeds. The task is repetitive, and in many cases, the models set by the parents are far from exemplary. The issue of kavannah becomes moot- not only do students not know what the tefillot mean, they have little incentive to want to know what they mean.
There are, however, models of tefilla that are relatively successful. In particular, on Shabbatonim, retreats and seminars, tefilla can be an inspirational experience. We cannot (and many would argue, should not) ask yeshivot to become year-round Shabbatonim, yet we can and must investigate which aspects of the informal experience can be incorporated into the yeshiva setting, and which other issues might be constructive in building more effective tefilla programs.
As a start, we must recognize the inherent limitations of such an endeavor. Tefilla is but one component of an entire informal educational experience. Thus, while we may think that we are observing a successful tefilla program, we may really be witnessing the cumulative effect of an entire approach. This brings us to our first critical component. In its very nature tefilla is an experience, not a cognitive, intellectual process. When we enter a beit kenesset we do so to daven, not to study the tefillot. Not that studying tefilla is unimportant, but it cannot be confused with davening. To effectively bring about affective change, a complete learning environment must be created (this is, essentially, what the Shabbaton does).
Environments are created on a school-wide basis, often in non-obvious ways. The subtle messages that are conveyed (whether willingly or not) are sensed by the students. The priority given to tefilla is evident by the resources that the school is willing to devote to it. A few pointed questions about the allocation of school resources will help us examine and understand the message that the school is sending to its students.

  • Is tefilla “pigeonholed” into the daily schedule, or is the schedule flexible enough to accommodate the various needs of tefilla? For example, is ample time given on a daily basis, on Mondays and Thursdays, on Rosh Hodesh, on a ta’anit tzibbur, etc. for students to daven without being rushed into the next program on the schedule? If tefilla must fit the daily schedule rather than the other way around, students will perceive it as having a lower priority than their classes.
  • Is there a room whose primary function is that of a beit knesset, or are classrooms, auditoriums, gyms, lunchrooms and the like converted for temporary use as mekomot tefilla? The very presence (or lack) of a room set aside as the shul or beit midrash indicates a commitment to tefilla. Imagine a school claiming to be dedicated to producing quality athletes, while not having a gymnasium.
  • Are the siddurim readily available? Are they uniform? What condition are they in?
  • Is the room used for tefilla well lit? Are the acoustics conducive to tefilla so that the hazzan can be heard but noise from the tzibbur is muffled? Is the space available to students cramped or comfortable? Is the room esthetically pleasing, so that students will feel good about entertaining it?
  • If both boys and girls attend minyan, are the arrangements for the girls such that they feel part of the tefilla and not merely bystanders? Do female faculty members participate in the tefilla, or are men the only models for the girls, and what role do the faculty play in tefilla?

Whereas the subtle messages conveyed by the school are significant, what happens in the beit kenesset itself is the key to creating the proper environment. In the spirit of da lifnei mi ata omed, it is critical that we understand the varied needs of our students. While recognizing that each student experiences tefilla differently, certain concerns apply on all levels. First, there must be a consciousness of the actual time allotted to tefilla. Too much time gives the tefilla an unending and oppressive tone, while too little time makes it seem like practice for a speed reading course. Second, students want to feel that the time they are in shul is time well spent. The problem is that different students define “time well spent” differently. It is therefore critical that a variety of minyanim be available to accommodate all types of backgrounds. Thus, just as students are grouped for classes- according to academic abilities- so too should they be grouped for tefilla– based on their interests and needs. (It is inconceivable to place a student who is the regular ba’al koreh in his shult ogether with a student who rarely attends minyan and has difficulty reading Hebrew.) At Shabbatonim this has become almost standard practice, and many shuls have adopted similar programs (e.g. having ahashkama minyan, a teen minyan, a young couples’ minyan, a beginners’ minyan, etc.). Aside from a “regular” minyan in which all tefillot are said, and with ample time, the school could have a variety of other minyanim from which the students can choose (and all should end at the same time, to avoid “early dismissal” as a factor in minyan selection). These minyanim should incorporate perush ha’tefilla, singing, responsive and congregational reading of tefillot, recitation of tefillot in English, student and faculty divrei Torah and discussions related to tefilla. The difference between the minyanim would be the different mixes and balances of these elements. Of course, each variation necessarily involves some sacrifice of “regular davening,” but all can be accomplished within halakhically acceptable guidelines.
There are many side benefits of such an approach. First is size limitation. Large minyanim tend to be unwieldy and unmanageable, whereas small minyanim can be managed more easily (and student accountability increases). Second, the small minyan allows each student to feel part of the tzibbur. The more students are called upon to participate actively, the greater is their sense of responsibility to the tzibbur, and the more connected they become to tefilla in general, and to their specific minyan in particular. Third, the small minyan allows the faculty member involved to develop a rapport with the students in that minyan, aside from merely becoming an attendance and behavior monitor. The importance of establishing a rebbe-talmid rapport with regard to the creation of an environment in which the student feels connected to tefilla cannot be overstated.
Finally, the vexing question of enforcing attendance and behavior rules is one which still needs to be addressed. On the one hand, if rules are not strictly enforced, students will be led to believe that the school considers tefilla to be less important than other school activities. On the other hand, forcing students to attend minyan and “behave properly” will certainly not endear them to tefilla. If, however, we establish small minyanim, in which the rebbe/teacher can know who is missing without having to take attendance, and has established a rapport with the students thereby encouraging appropriate behavior, we have a reasonable approach to both problems.
One significant corollary to this is the importance of role models for tefilla. It is unfair to expect students to become inspired to daven if they are not regularly exposed to people who are themselves inspired. A small, intimate minyan allows students to actively watch faculty members daven with kavannah, which of course, makes the job of the rebbeim/teachers much more difficult. They themselves must become inspired and aware that their own tefilla may very well affect those around them.
Indeed, as Rav Kook was reported to have pointed out, the word hashpa’ah (to influence others) comes from the word shefa (abundance). In order to influence others, one must be overflowing. If we expect to influence our students towards improving their tefilla, then we must first look at our own. We must ask whether we dedicate enough of our school’s resources to emphasize the centrality of tefilla in the spiritual life of the Jew, and whether we dedicate enough of our own resources to emphasize the centrality of tefilla in our spiritual lives.