Why Aren’t Our Kids in Shul?

by | in Family

There is a disturbing phenomenon that we in the Modern Orthodox community don’t like to talk about: many of our teenagers do not attend shul on Shabbat morning.

To be sure, there are plenty of Modern Orthodox minyanim packed with serious adolescents. But judging from my conversations with parents and rabbis in communities across the country it is clear that a significant number of frum youth are simply not in shul on Shabbat morning or, at the very least, are engaged in battles with their parents about attendance. What will happen to these young people when they become adults? Will they ever come back to shul? If so, what will motivate them to do so? What does it mean to the future of the Modern Orthodox community if so many leave a focal point of Jewish life and do not return?

The Problem of Prayer
Sitting in shul for two or three hours, saying prayers that one does not understand (despite a good Jewish education)—prayers that seemingly have no order and no direction—can be a challenge for many an adult, let alone a teenager who is still trying to find his way. The same things that can be said about the turmoil and change that accompany teens’ intellectual, emotional, and social development can be said about their religious development as well. Childhood conceptions of the efficacy of prayer and the meaning of belief undergo significant changes as one reaches the teen years; Chazal knew this when they established the age when a child becomes an adult.

There is a new awareness that things don’t quite work the way they were taught in elementary school, yet teens are not yet at a stage when they can totally resolve the dissonance; that takes time. The flowery language of the siddur does not help, nor does the fact that Shacharit takes place at the worst time of day for most adolescents who physiologically need more sleep. The long service is too reminiscent of the daily routine of school, and the rabbi’s derashah is too similar to hearing a lecture in class. So it is not surprising that many teens have a difficult time relating to prayer.

Becoming a Shul-Goer for Life
One of the most powerful pieces of research I have read on the subject is from studies done on church attendance: “Most children regard worship as uninteresting and boring, nevertheless, it is the children who have been regularly involved in it who are more likely to retain the habit of church attendance when free to abandon it.”1
In other words, many children don’t want to attend religious services, but those adults who end up attending services on their own are those who went as children even though they didn’t want to. Simply put: the more you force your child to go to shul, the more likely it is that he or she will continue to go to shul later in life.

Developmentally this makes sense as well. Kids need time to figure out who they are and what they believe, and they need to continue to do so within the framework of the system. If children are permitted to opt out of going to shul, then there is just as good a chance that they will opt out altogether, forever. Forcing most (there are always exceptions) kids to go to shul is not as draconian as it may sound. There are many areas in life in which we force our kids to do things which they would not otherwise do (such as chores, homework, visits to relatives, et cetera). We hope that our kids will come to appreciate these values. We know that letting them off the hook is not in their best interest or our own.

Family is the most formative, the most profound, and the most enduring influence on a child’s religious development.

In short, we need to keep our children “in the game.” That is, we need to take a long-term view of adolescent religious development and see shul-going, like so many other aspects of development, as a process. There are moments of questioning and perhaps rebellion, when kids want to stay home and study or read or sleep or . . . sleep. Any one instance need not be a line in the sand over which one must do major battle. One needs to know when to be flexible and when to hold firm. There are no hard and fast rules. But our overarching message should be that “in this family, going to shul is a value that we will not concede.” Even if there are minor compromises along the way, as long as teens continue to go to shul, the more likely it is that they will continue to do so when they are adults.

Making Shul a Positive Experience
Of course, just going to shul is not enough. If all of our children’s time is spent in the lobby with friends, then we have not accomplished much. Instead they need to be in shul even if only for key moments of the tefillah. There are certainly halachic and educational considerations for prioritizing when kids need to be present, and there are numerous things that shuls can do to make shul-going more attractive and engaging for teens. However, I would like to emphasize another positive aspect of shul-going that has little to do with shul itself but has to do with the parent-child relationship.

What we all crave most with our children is quality time—meaningful time we spend with our children no matter how long it is. Carpool may be one such opportunity, quiet moments in the late hours of the night might be another. Walking to shul together is certainly another. The younger one’s child the easier it is to create meaningful moments to talk about anything and everything. It is important to realize that the more one develops this relationship, the easier conversations will be as a child reaches adolescence.
Communication is one of the cures for many ills, and many a memory was created during long regular walks alone with a parent. Children may value that time enough that they will want to get out of bed in the morning even if it means that they have to go to shul. Children come to identify shul-going as a positive experience not because of what happened at shul but what happened along the way. A former shul rabbi once told me: “When I talk to people in preparation for [delivering their parents’] eulogies, many mention that walking to shul with the parent was among the most meaningful time spent together.”

The same benefit may be derived by sharing with one’s child the shul experience itself. In the first place, there is the issue of role-modeling. When we see people around us, especially people whom we respect and admire, taking davening seriously, then we are more likely to take it seriously as well. When children come to shul and see that this is a meaningful activity for their parents, then there is a greater likelihood that it will be meaningful for them, too. Assuming it is a positive experience, davening thus can draw one closer to a child even if one does not immediately feel that it is drawing one closer to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

I have written previously in these pages about the importance of “spiritual capital,” that is, the spiritual experiences we have as children that we take with us in life. Think back to festive family meals, or positive interactions with grandparents or family vacations. The details of those experiences may elude us years later, but we are left with an overwhelming positive feeling that we carry with us forever. That’s the “capital” that our parents invested in us in our youth. Walking to shul and davening together can provide an investment that our children will be able to live off of as they grow older and create their own personal links to the shul experience.

Parents as Pray-ers
I have heard parents object that schools must take a stronger lead in educating about davening since kids spend so much more time in shul while in school than they do on weekends. This is absolutely true and it remains a problem that religious educators must face. At the same time, my own quantitative research in the Modern Orthodox community and the consistent finding in the research of almost all faith communities in the West is that the family is the most formative, the most profound, and the most enduring influence on a child’s religious development. It behooves all of us, therefore, to take our own shul-going most seriously if we want our children to take it seriously.

To be sure, that is not an easy task. One of the greatest challenges of our religious lives is giving meaning to practices that are habitual and routine and feel like they can dampen the soul rather than enervate and enrich it. But that is a challenge that we need to meet head-on, with earnestness, determination and honesty. Our souls crave it. And so do our children’s.

Notes
1. Kenneth Hyde, Religion in Childhood and Adolescence: A Comprehensive Review of the Research (Birmingham, Alabama, 1990), 11-12.

Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz is headmaster of Ramaz Upper School in New York City. He has written extensively on various aspects of Jewish education including the religious development of children and adolescents.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2011.

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