Vaccinating Our Children Against Prayer

I am writing this column on the train – the one AFTER the one I was supposed to catch, as I experienced that forlorn feeling when I rushed as fast as my legs would carry me, my briefcase, coat, umbrella, and take-home kosher pizza for the kids from my business meeting in Manhattan to the train that would carry me home to my Highland Park, NJ home. As I strode confidently on to the platform, relieved that I had “just made it”, I saw the doors close before me, sudden and sure, with me on the outside of the door. I missed my planned train by something like 5 seconds, and I wasn’t happy as I mentally calculated the impact on my schedule of needing to wait for the next one.

It’s a dangerous thing, giving a writer time to sit in a train station to contemplate. I couldn’t get the image out of my head – that of the train door slamming in my face, and the sheer permanence of it. No amount of begging, waving at the conductor, crying, would have helped. I was simply on the other side of the door; the lucky ones were inside, and I was outside.

My mind flashed to my business meeting earlier in the day, which began when a man in the meeting made what was seemingly a friendly gesture – he offered half of his tuna fish sandwich to another man in the room. The other man smiled widely at the generosity but immediately declined the offer. “Let me tell you why I NEVER eat tunafish,” he said. He then proceeded to explain that when he was a child – many years ago – he had become carsick on a family trip when he reached into a bag looking for a yummy treat and instead, came up with tunafish coating his hands, and sending a wrenching smell up to his nose which led him to lose the contents of his stomach. From that moment, tunafish was a four-letter word – just the thought of it, (and especially the sight or smell of it), made him feel queasy.

Essentially, this man had become vaccinated against any lifelong enjoyment of tunafish, in one quick moment. And this, my fellow readers, is the best way I can describe how I felt, and feel every year, during the High Holiday davening that we have all recently experienced. At the ripe old age of 50, I can tell you that I was vaccinated against meaningful prayer when I was about 10, and 40 years later, I still feel that I am standing on the wrong side of the door – the one where people hold a siddur and look like they are praying, but they are disconnected, tired of standing, confused, and sad, because they don’t know how to daven, and they can’t seem to “get there” no matter how hard they try.

I was raised with the typical secular introduction to prayer – none. There was no mention of G-d in my childhood home, no Hebrew school, no role models of people who ever prayed, no understanding of the Hebrew language – and the best vaccination of all – I was forced to go to synagogue two days a year, for “Happy New Year” and Yom Kippur, where all I remember about those experiences is counting the ceiling titles, the pages left to go in the siddur, and the hours to go.

I do not blame my childhood upbringing for being “vaccinated” against meaningful prayer. I am an intelligent adult who has read hundreds of inspirational articles, books, and magazines, attended shiurum, conversed with partners in Torah, and relied upon my trusty transliterated siddur to help me manage the Hebrew in the service. I understand that prayer is an avodah and I know that working at it is a lifelong ambition.

I also know that, just like the man who to this day can’t stomach tunafish because of his childhood negative association, it is taking a lifetime of work to try to undo the entrenched negative association I have embedded in me from unhappy childhood connections – or disconnections as it were – with synagogue.

I may not ever get it right in this lifetime. For me, it might be too late, but at least my children know what it’s like to live in a house where people pray, they are learning how to pray, and more importantly why to pray at school and at home, and they go to synagogue every week, not twice a year. Even if they sometimes find prayer boring, and synagogue too long ( don’t we all), of one thing I am confident. They have a better shot at it than I do, because they were never vaccinated against it.

My time of sitting in the train – and thus the luxury of contemplation – is coming to an end. I leave you for now with one last thought that gives me pause. Some childhood experiences are so visceral and deeply felt, they enter into our children and lodge permanently somewhere in their psyche, never to be entirely shaken loose. As I am still in a contemplative mood from recent Yom Kippur introspection, I ask myself now, are my children at all vaccinated against something for which I would hope they would not have a negative association? Did it come from me?

I pray not.

Whew, I do know how to pray after all.

Syndicated newspaper advice columnist and author of twelve books, Azriela Jaffe is an international expert on entrepreneurial couples, business partnerships, handling rejection and criticism, balancing work and family, breadwinner wife and dual career issues, creating more luck and prosperity in your life, and resolving marital conflict. Her mission: “To be a catalyst for spiritual growth and comfort.”
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17 comments on “Vaccinating Our Children Against Prayer

  1. Nathan,
    Sometimes (and I write this a parent) kids in shul can make things difficult in terms of davening/kavana. I happen to be one of those parents that does bring his older kids to shul on Shabbos.
    It is important when dealing with your on children and when observing the behavior of other kids to remember that children look to adults as role-models and that these children will eventually be halachik adults and play important parts in our communities.
    Even the most obnoxious child was created in the image of Hashem and has a very holy neshamah.
    I’m sorry you’ve had such bad experiences with children in shul, but don’t let that taint the greatness and beauty of the a Torah observant lifestyle.

  2. Nathan, when you truly believe HaShem has selected you for greatness—that is, to be a Jew—you don’t let these things pull you off course.

  3. I do not have the time to adequately describe how I have suffered from children in shul. And if I did write about it, you would not have enough time to read it, and you might not believe it.

    Let me just say that there have been several times when I have come very close to fleeing Judaism completely because of children in shul.

    There is still a good chance that I may dump Judaism completely after 25 years as a Baal Teshuvah, and a very big part of that is the unbelievable suffering I have experienced from children in shul.

    Children in shul have ruined my Judaism, ruined my happiness and ruined my life.

    The synagogue Rabbis know that children in shul are a violation of Halachah, but if they want to avoid getting fired, they must keep their mouths shut on this issue.

  4. “Not taking the kids” can be more of a problem for BT’s than for others. We don’t usually have resource to as much family support and other babysitting options as our neighbors. At the same time, our womenfolk may be more frustrated by staying at home instead of attending shul, give their backgrounds. The halacha is not changed by this, but in considering this challenge we need to think in terms of our expectations and limitations as BT’s, too.

  5. In response to Nathan (#12),


    That certainly is the halachah, and we must follow it.

    While we may think our children are at the “age of chinuch,” not every visit to shul is going to work out as expected. We have to try to acclimate them to shul when we think they are ready. However, if it is not going well on a particular day, we have to get up in mid-service and go home, for the sake of all concerned. We also have to try again the next week or shortly thereafter.

  6. In response to Gary (message number 11):

    Mishnah Berurah on Orach Chaim, Siman 98, Sif 1, Sif Katan 3:

    The Shelah [Sefer Shnei Luchot HaBrit, written by Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, born 1565, died 1630] rebukes those bring young children to synagogue, meaning those who are below the age of chinuch, because they play and dance in the synagogue.

    When children play and dance in the synagogue they profane its sanctity and confuse the minds of the congregants. Also, when they become older, they will not cease from the bad way of their childhood, to play and offend the sanctity of the synagogue.

    But if they have reached the age of chinuch, on the contrary, they should be brought to synagogue and taught the paths of life, to sit with awe and fear, and not move from his place, and he should be encouraged to answer AMEN to kaddish and kedushah…

  7. Nathan (#3) wrote:

    “The primary purpose of prohibiting young children from attending in shul is to prevent them from disturbing the adults.

    This prohibition has the additional benefit of preventing young children from becoming vaccinated against prayer.”

    Nathan, I understand your first point, and I would like to expand on your second.

    If young children associate the synagogue as a place where they can’t act like young children, they will come to resent the synagogue and it’s reason for existence, which is prayer.

    It is best to delay bringing children to shul until they are at an age where they can be smoothly integrated into public prayer.

    We need to be prepared to leave early and take them home if things aren’t working out as expected. When my kids were young, if they acted up in shul, I would take them to the lobby for one breather. If they didn’t settle down upon our return, we would leave and I would complete my prayers at home. I would try to make the trip home as much fun as possible, so they would not feel that they were being punished for acting their actual age, rather than what I thought their age should be.

  8. A somewhat related matter. I can tune out, to a certain extent, the talking of others in shul. I really take exception to it, though, if my 6 year old is there. Adults should know that they’re responsible for the chinuk of everyone’s kids when they’re in shul.

  9. I’ll also add that kids often cause considerable physical damage to shul buildings. One wonders what they are allowed to do at home.

  10. Bob, I don’t see that it’s a shul’s responsibility to be a day-camp. Parents should not take children to shul if they are running around creating a disturbance, or if safety is compromised.

    I think a parent should determine when their child is old enough to go on occasion, and the child should be sitting right next to the parent. Shacharis should be last; a shorter tefilah like Mincha is appropriate for the younger child. The infrequent occasion can progress to more frequent shul visits. When a child begs to go to shul, and sees it as a privilege to sit near daddy, misbehavior is rare, and “forcing” never comes into play.

    A shul is for tefila, not a day-camp, and the responsibility belongs to the parent. Those shuls that offer activities and structure for children are doing an incredible chessed that should not be seen as a normal, to-be-expected component of a shul’s activities.

  11. Watch out though for shuls that do not structure the activities of children who come on Shabbos. If neither the shul nor the parents are minding the kids, the kids find parts of the shul to play in and are not exposed to the service. The shul is not supposed to be a play area for unsupervised kids yelling and running wild.

  12. “being dragged off to shul, forced to stand for long prayer periods at school and camp without having a clue as to what you are doing is “vaccination” enough for anyone.”

    Not an optimal situation, true. Suggestion- make davening exciting for your child, don’t let them go to shul too early and hold them back when they wish to, doling it out slowly- they should feel that going to shul is a privilege. Once the child is older and going regularly, try to have dad or another family member/friend walk with the child to and fro (or drive), so it is always seen as an opportunity for good conversation- they will look forward to private time, and make wonderful and positive associations with the tefila time.

    Many schools generate a lot of excitement in the earlier elementary years when the children are “allowed” to say another tefila in shacharis- there is a slow buildup to full Tefilah that is very exciting for the children. Then, they get a lot of positive feedback for the davening.

    Children don’t have to be dragged, forced, etc. I know many children who are not “vaccinated against tefilah”, fortunately.

  13. Nice post Azriella. Have you considered davening for chizuk in davening? Sometimes I get so caught up in the “should-be” of davening that I forget we can ask Hashem for help in every area of conflict, even in finding meaning in davening!!!

  14. In the year 2000, Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski MD published a book titled Wisdom Each Day.

    In this book, in the reading for Shevat 22, on page 142, Rabbi Twerski teaches:

    “ALL halachic authorities state that children who are too young to be able to sit quietly in shul, should NOT be brought to shul.”

    The primary purpose of prohibiting young children from attending in shul is to prevent them from disturbing the adults.

    This prohibition has the additional benefit of preventing young children from becoming vaccinated against prayer.

    Mishnah Berurah on Orach Chaim, Siman 124, Sif 7, Sif Katan 28:

    THE LITTLE ONES. It is necessary to train them to stand in awe and fear [in the synagogue]. And especially the little ones, who run around the synagogue and play, it is better to NOT bring them, because habit becomes nature, and they will disturb the congregation in their prayer.

  15. It’s certainly true that personal, heartfelt prayer is important, fixed prayer is also important. If “not having a clue as to what you are doing” is an issue, and it certainly seems to be a large problem, the solution would be to learn the translation of the prayers and their commentaries and explanations. Fixed prayer is also often a framework for personal prayer.

  16. Don’t you think FFB’s are also vaccinated against prayer. Being dragged off to shul, forced to stand for long prayer periods at school and camp without having a clue as to what you are doing is “vaccination” enough for anyone. True prayer is intuitive, like Davids was and it doesn’t require a siddur a shul or any outside props though those can certainly be useful additions.
    For a wonderful description of that true moment of connection, I’d recommend reading David Shef’s Beautiful Boy where he a self proclaimed atheist reaches out in the most visceral way possible to G-d–and he’s answered.

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