Rabbi Noam Weinberg, associate principal of The Moriah School in Englewood, is clearly excited about the school’s tefillah (prayer) initiative, now in its second cycle.
With the Kotel as the backdrop, Rabbi Akiva Wolk leads Moriah’s new tefillah initiative, Shaare Shomayim.
Weinberg, who has been a Jewish educator for the past decade, says he has "never seen this done."
"It’s amazing an out-of-the-box approach," he said, describing the venture, which was created to address the fact that Moriah students, like most youngsters in modern Orthodox schools, were "davening by rote" when he first came to the school.
"The challenge is that students are not motivated to pray on their own," said Rabbi Kenneth Schiowitz, rosh beit midrash at The Ramaz School in New York City and a Teaneck resident, who recently organized a conference on the subject (see related story). "It’s hard to inspire them, but it’s hard to inspire adults as well."
Shortly after taking up his position at Moriah this school year, Weinberg decided that something must be done and that tefillah provided "a fertile ground to plant something new."
In a proposal he wrote with Rabbi Akiva Wolk of the middle school, Weinberg noted that "many ‘Tefillah-Zombies’ are not even familiar with the basic halachic protocol which structures our services…. As mechanchim [educators], we are obligated to effect change by inspiring our students during tefillah and [equipping] them with the keys to a successful interaction with HaShem."
After discussing with the middle school Judaic studies faculty ways to enhance students’ spiritual development, Weinberg proposed the creation of an alternative minyan. The new service, Shaare Shomayim offered in two-week cycles and embracing 40 students in each cycle would include ‘0 boys, 10 each from the seventh and eighth grade, and ‘0 girls, chosen the same way. According to Weinberg, one cycle has been completed and the next has begun.
The curriculum for the minyan, developed together with Wolk, is designed to "focus on something different every day and every week," said Weinberg, adding that the goal is to teach both the technique and the importance of tefillah.
The alternative minyan is housed in a classroom with a SMART Board, a touch-control screen that works with a computer and a projector, he said, since "we use a lot of technology." When students enter, lights are dimmed and soft music plays in the background. When they are ready to begin, the music and lights are turned off and "an inspirational video is shown," including, for example, scenes of nature.
"We want to bring them to a different level before we begin," said Weinberg, noting that some individual prayers are omitted from the service, while still following halachic guidelines. After reciting the Yishtabach prayer together, students sit, and the prayer leader explains the theme of the day.
Weinberg noted that in an upcoming session, "we’ll look at aspects of ‘requests’ in davening and how we can use the time to develop a relationship with God." As part of this effort, he plans to show a scene from the film "I Am Legend," in which the hero, using his laptop, broadcasts a message saying, in effect, "I am here for you."
"We’ll ask students what this means and tell them to think about what they would ask of HaShem for themselves, their families, and their community. Then we’ll have them write it down on cards, to be read at a certain point during the Shemoneh Esrei. We’ll also play soft music to help the students focus on their davening," he said.
After the service, prayer leaders may open the floor up to questions.
"We’ve gotten a lot of them," said Weinberg, "like is it OK to daven in English, and do we need to say everything?"
Weinberg is proud of the responses he has received to evaluation questions handed out to students at the beginning, and again at the conclusion, of the two-week cycle. "There was a tremendous disparity" in terms of their approach to tefillah, he said.
"One student wrote, ‘It taught me to think about davening being a conversation with HaShem.’ Another wrote, ‘Now I know that Hashem is always there.’"
"Not all teachers gravitate to this minyan," said Weinberg, although, he said, about five of them are always there. Parents also have been invited to participate.
"One parent told me, ‘If only I would have had this, my davening would be so different.’"