Pray tell: What inspires our children to pray?

Father and Son Praying at The Kotel (istock/meyer)

“What I plead for is the creation of a prayer atmosphere. Such an atmosphere is … created by … the example of prayer, by a person who prays. You create that atmosphere not around you but within you.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel critiques the pulpit rabbi in his book on prayer Man’s Quest for God. He argues that it is not the sermon that is most impactful, but the rabbi’s role modeling, his being, and genuine expression, which effectuates a transformation in the congregant. In inspiring our communities, we create new programs, restructure the learning, establish reward systems and incentives, but often overlook the most impactful resource we have: our own passion and commitment.

Whether as rabbis leading our congregations or parents guiding our families, we must model our convictions and engage our children. As sociologist Christian Smith said concerning his study on religious continuity: “No other conceivable causal influence… comes remotely close to matching the influence of parents on the religious faith and practices of youth.” We may verbally express to our children what is important but not realize the effect of incongruence between home and school, either a tension or a compartmentalization of, “This is what we do in school, and this is what we do at home.” In this light, I would like to re-emphasize the critical role of a parental partnership with educators in modeling the values, ethics, and beliefs at home and engaging one’s children in religious experiences outside of school. We should not underestimate the detrimental effect of a lack of these powerful experiential moments.

Our greatest rabbi and teacher, Moshe Rabbenu, while an exceptional role model for Benei Yisrael, had grandchildren who were idolatrous priests (Shofetim 18:30 and Talmud Bavli Bava Batra 109b). Our shock at this outcome is due to our failure to realize that Moshe’s family interactions are nearly absent from the Humash. Comparing him with our forefathers brings this to light. Like many of the stories of our forefathers, we learn about Moshe’s early family life, how he met his wife outside of Egypt, in a place called Midian, and had two children. After the birth of his sons, though, we only have one or two fleeting references to his family. This is in contrast to the numerous chapters dedicated to how our forefathers interacted with God alongside their families. With Moshe, all of the momentous experiences are away from his family.

The Devotional And Practical Pictorial Family Bible, door J. R. Jones, 1879
The Meeting of Yitro and Moshe (The Devotional And Practical Pictorial Family Bible, door J. R. Jones, 1879)

After about a year of separation, Moshe’s father-in-law brings Moshe’s wife, and, as the text portrays it, her two sons (Shemot 18:5). Moshe goes out to greet Yitro. They prostrate towards each other, embrace, catch up, and talk (Shemot 18:7-9). Yitro is described as being thrilled by all that he hears, but there is no mention of Moshe’s wife and sons. Did Moshe not greet them, embrace them, ask them how they were doing, fill them in on all that happened over the past year? The text is descriptive in its silence.

Moshe’s sons may have suffered from what we now call Preacher’s Child Syndrome, wherein rabbis’ children perceive their fathers as being over-involved with synagogue life. Unlike rabbis, however, our national leader, Moshe, was given a unique all-encompassing mission directly from God. When Moshe’s siblings, Miriam and Aharon, lamented Moshe’s separation from his wife, God chastised them, and Miriam was stricken with sara’at (leprosy). God clarified at that time that Moshe’s situation was unique, and he had to separate from his family to maintain a certain level of focus (Bemidbar 12:6-10). The sacrifice, though, was that his children and grandchildren were offered on the altar of community.

In addition, Moshe’s sons lost out on the impact of powerful experiences while they were with their mother in Midian, outside of Egypt. They did not experience the awesomeness of God’s power and presence expressed during the ten plagues. They missed the miracles of the Exodus, the splitting of the sea, and according to many commentators, even the revelation at Mt. Sinai. They were absent from these formative moments and therefore could not internalize the feeling of awe, trepidation, and the heights of joy that remain long after the knowledge has been forgotten — since feelings, how one is emotionally moved, are the impressions that most impact and remain. That is why no amount of academic education or discussion can ever shape a child as much as a powerful religious experience.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in a lecture he delivered in 1971, related that the moment which most impacted his religious sensitivity was the genuine religious expression he saw on his grandfather’s face during prayers on Yom Kippur. The intellectual and philosophical training he received from his grandfather, the famous Reb Chaim of Brisk, did not have the same impact as witnessing his genuine connection to prayer. Rabbi Soloveitchik remembered that moment for a lifetime and credited it as his pivotal memory, shaping him as a religiously sensitive person.

Rabbi Ezra Labaton ZS
Rabbi Ezra Labaton ZS”L

One of the most impactful people in my life was Rabbi Ezra Labaton zs”l. While he was known as an intellectual who held a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy, his most significant impact on me and others was through his very being. When I reflect on my love for Torah learning, memories of Rabbi Labaton come to mind. I remember that during the last few months of his life, when cancer had spread throughout his body, and he was visibly weak, he would light up with passion and energy whenever he delivered a sermon or sat down to teach. It was as though he was in full health. He did not need to speak to me about developing a love for Torah study or how it could invigorate one’s life; he embodied it.

Rabbi Heschel’s words guide me every day as I enter the synagogue and return home to my wife and daughter. During the lockdown, I had the opportunity of sitting with my two-year-old every morning as I donned tefillin and prayed shaharit, every afternoon as I stood by our living room wall and prayed minha, and every night as I recited Shema with her. After only a few days, she began running to my room in the morning with a small book, calling it a siddur, and asking me to pray with her. She would wrap her little arm with the extra leather of my tefillin and say: “I’m putting tefillin.” When I recited the Amida, she would bring a book and stand next to me, looking up at me with admiration, sometimes swaying, as I now realize I sometimes do. It was touching to see how my own engagement in Jewish ritual and spirituality had so profoundly impacted her.

We are the greatest chance our children have of leading a Jewish life, and we need to express not only in words but in our actions what we value and believe. We must actively engage our children in religious experiences, including the saying of berakhot, preparing for Shabbat, and taking them to the synagogue to to be moved, together, by the hazzan’s prayer, and see our commitment to minyan and passion for Torah study. If we want our kids to pray, we need to pray and pray with them. While they can participate in our synagogue’s youth groups, for whatever time they can experience and be involved in shul, they should be, sitting right by our side.

We must recognize the incredible opportunity and responsibility that we have and realize that as impactful as Jewish Day Schools are in imparting Jewish ideas, principles, and values to our children, there is no comparison to the impact we can have through personally role modeling a genuinely engaged life of Torah, misvot, and religious experiences.

About the Author
Rabbi Meyer Laniado is the associate rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and serves as the leader of its thriving Sephardic community on New York's Upper East Side.
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