My older son, who is 8 years old, davens beautifully in Hebrew, but he doesn’t comprehend much of what he is saying. I've been encouraging him to read along the English translation rather than the Hebrew. The English is often too unvernacularish for easy understanding, but it’s better than a total lack of comprehension.
So last week my son was working with some half-plant, half-human figures he had created, and he named them Mr. and Mrs. Salvation Sprout. He had read in his Artscroll Siddur about how salvation sprouts, and he was inspired by their high-minded English to nickname these the Salvation Sprouts.
That incident aside, I am disappointed at how little time many yeshiva day schools spend on teaching children the meaning of davening. I don’t mean the “How To” or when to bow and when to stand and when to sit and how to say the words, I mean the meaning, the sense that Dovid haMelech is talking to me in Psukei d’Zimra, the stern commitment that comes with Shma, the impassioned plea of the Shmoneh Esreih, the gloriously anthemesque Aleinu l’Shabeiach.
There are many reasons why schools don’t spend a lot of time in this: Kids are often too immature to grasp the concepts. It takes a lot of creativity to do this right. There is so much else to teach. The teachers themselves have a hard time with their own kavvanah. No one has yet developed a neat, standardized, Tal Am-esque curriculum for teaching davening.
But it is so necessary. Of all the Judaic lessons our children will learn, how many will be as important, on a daily basis, as davening? Perhaps some basic halachah, but that’s it.
We want our sons to put on tefillin, to daven with kavvanah, to enjoy sitting in shul.
We want our daughters to feel connection in davening, whether we are on the part of the spectrum that sends them to shul or we are on the part of the spectrum that doesn’t encourage female shul attendance.
How’s that going to happen if we don’t teach them to feel the davening?
Perhaps the schools think the parents will teach it, but that’s unlikely. And the result is generation after generation of children who grow up thinking Psukei d’Zimra is twenty repetitive paragraphs of “Praise Gd for this, Praise Gd for that,” who can sing every word of Shma but can’t translate it, who feel Shmoneh Esreih is boring, who live for the days when we skip Tachanun.
One of the reasons kids “flip out” in Israel and come back with a low tolerance for their hometown shuls is that they remember what it was like to grow up in those shuls. They remember that they felt weak or no connections to the davening. They remember people talking. And they contrast that experience with the way they saw davening in yeshiva, they contrast it with the small bits of kavvanah they picked up here and there in Israel, and they don’t want to go back to the schmoozing and the rote recitation.
If we would teach them better in the first place, they would have fonder shul experiences to remember, and they wouldn’t need to fear returning home.
We can do better than this. And if we want our children to love shul, we had better do it.