I have had the honor these past two weeks to pray Tefilat Arvit, the evening prayer, with the 10-&-11-year-old boys and girls in Camp Moshava each day. Though young, these pre-middle-school children have the amazing opportunity to experience thrice-daily communal prayer, “Tefilah Betzibur” – learning the profound emotional and theological feeling of praying not as individuals but as a wider tzibur, a wider community, as a group and not as singular human being (see Rambam, Laws of Prayer, 8:1; and as interpreted by Rabbi Jospeh B. Solovietchik Brachot 15a).
It is unusual for young boys and girls to participate in the communal evening prayer throughout the summer. The earliest time for Ma`ariv in much of the United States for much of the summer is after 8:30 p.m. – close to the bedtimes of young children. But thanks to the one hour earlier “Camp Time,” and the decision to follow the view of Rebbi Yehudah each day of the summer (Brachot 27a, Shulchan Aruch and Rama 233) our Ma`ariv was early enough for all these children to participate, growing from the experience of answering Barchu, and reciting the Shema and Amidah as part of a larger prayer community. They would stand with their peers, with their teenage counselors, and with adults – brought together by the common denominator of our Jewish faith, which everyone in the room shared.
I actually wondered a few times this summer whether the number of these 10-&-11-year-old-girls participating in Ma`ariv Betizbur exceeded the number of 10-&-11-year-old girls participating in Maariv communally for the entire rest of the state of Pennsylvania combined! Though there is ample halachic basis to recommend women to recite Arvit each day (See Yabiya Omer 6:17, Aruch Hashulchan 106:7), many communities do not insist on this stringency and I wonder how many other communities would be so mission-focused as to insist that these girls, still not yet training for their Bat Mitzvah, should still experience communal prayer three times each day.
During the school year, in my work at Maimonides School, founded in 1937 by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, we often have the largest gathering of women for a communal prayer of any institution in New England on a given day. It is a hallmark of Modern Orthodox Judaism that men and women should be encouraged to pursue the same fulfillment of religious experiences, including advanced Torah study and communal prayer. Yet, it is rare to find institutions that are so committed to their values as to insist upon it even from the youngest ages.
Our children have the enormous potential to subconsciously intuit which religious practices and feelings are core to our identity as Jews and which are not, simply by observing which religious observances we introduce them to at a younger age and which we delay until later. Encouraging communal prayer at the youngest of ages teaches boys and girls that being Jewish is defined through our thrice-daily conversation with our creator, conducted as part of a larger covenantal prayer community. And so it is critical that this becomes part of our sons’ and daughters’ Jewish-self-concept at the earliest ages. There are other critical components to Judaism, too, but few would argue that communal prayer is less ubiquitous, less important, or more worthy of delaying until children are older.
But at least for a few weeks each summer in a small Beit Kneset nestled in the hills of North Eastern Pennsylvania, a small number of young Chanichim were able to experience this apex of religious fulfillment. Though they probably do not realize all how special and unique their Davening is, I am hopeful it is something they will carry with themselves for the rest of their lives.