by Rabbi Will Keller
I glance over at the person on my right in shul, fervently rocking back and forth while the sounds of prayers are heard all around. But she actually is not praying at all. She is my three year old and she is in the middle of a staring contest with the man three rows ahead of us while she tears open her lollipop.
While I want my children to be in services, I also know that sitting quietly, let alone praying with intention for a stretch of time is an impossibility for them at this point in their development. My wife and I try to get out ahead of their impatience, bringing snacks, quiet games, even purchasing a prayer book with pictures geared towards little kids (Click here to check out that siddur).
Despite our preparations, 30 seconds into shul I’m handing out dum-dums so my kids will stop using the shul as an obstacle course.
Our shul does provide childcare, but in some ways that is besides the point. I remember seeing a father and his sons leading services together, their voices twisted together to produce an incredible harmony. Before I had children of my own, I imagined all I needed to do to recreate that dynamic in my family was simply to keep my kids in shul with me as much as possible.
If only it was that easy!
Today, as a parent, I know the real key to helping your children develop a relationship to prayer is far more complex than simply being present in shul. In our home, we encourage personal prayer practice; we say the Shema with our children each night at bedtime and invite the kiddos to join in when we say our own prayers. With all this groundwork, our children are beginning their personal relationship to prayer and the divine and learning the value of being present for communal prayers.
When we do get our children into services, I’m often preoccupied by the distractions and ruckus that kids tend to make. While we are blessed to belong to a shul community, Sha’arei Orah, that embraces having young voices in shul even if they are not always (or even never) singing along, I still have a hard time focusing on my own tefillah when my concentration is pulled in many different directions.
Although the process can feel long and has its hiccups, our family has been blessed to have had real success. Our almost four year old daughter turned to my wife a few months ago as the community recited the shema and exclaimed “I DO THAT” and weeks after that she offered her own spontaneous prayer. My almost two-year-old son enjoys yelling “AMEN” to our the blessing over the wine and Challah. Despite (or maybe because of) all the lollipops and shushing I have seen progress is possible even if jump-starting a child’s spiritual journey has its challenges.
I want to set reasonable goals for our progress. I took a step back to think about perspective and expectations. As an adult, I struggle with being in services, so I need to recognize my kiddos are going to struggle with this also.
Our plan is to keep the conversation about G?d and the value of prayer and meditation present in our home. We will continue to rely on, and engage with, our shul community to help provide meaningful experiences for our kids’ in shul, finding times for their voice to be heard during a prayer like Adom Olam or announcing page numbers or even helping with ritual like following the Torah as it is carried around the shul. We will continue partner with our children’s day schools in order to provide an immersive and consistent exposure to these values and experiences.
These are ideas, we will have to see how our children and community respond to them and we can always regroup and try again if we need to. I believe most important is to show your children that spiritual practice is worth working towards and takes place both internally, but also on a community level.
If all else fails, come find me in shul and I’ll give you a lollipop!
Rabbi Will Keller is the Director of Jewish Life at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.