Not too long ago I read the fine article “Why Aren’t Our Kids in Shul?” by Rabbi Jay Goldmintz, concerning what many of us increasingly find a losing battle to inspire our teenagers to engage with Tefillah in Shul. I wanted to contribute my own observations, as an educator and as someone who has spent a considerable amount of time working with children of middle and high school age both learning about and practicing Tefillah. It is my hope that Rabbi Goldmintz’s observations spark more debate around, and give needed attention to, this crucial issue. My point here is only to add to what Rabbi Goldmintz said, not to disagree with any points that he made.
A had an epiphany last week, in explaining to my sixth graders as a matter of course the familiar idea that Hashem is not a vending machine and that our goal in Tefillah is to build and strengthen a relationship with Him meaningful enough to stand regardless of immediate (or even long-term) positive, negative, or non-responses to those Tefillot. As I concluded my thoughts and they began to Daven, I reflected in the ensuing quietude about the blank stares I had just received from my students, and something occurred to me rather suddenly. The notion of relationship that I had just been describing, a notion that to me and to most adults is very logical and sensible, is completely foreign to them at this stage in their lives and for the foreseeable future. For adolescents, the notion of relationship is in a state of necessary flux. They are busy breaking away from and redefining the one relationship they have ever known, that with their parents, a relationship seen increasingly as one of rupture and reconstruction as adolescence moves along. The propriety of adolescents’ constantly “redefining” their relationship with Hashem as they are doing with their parents is a difficult comparison and one which might require validation and explication when we talk about Tefillah with teens.
Adding to the trouble, the relationship that teens have had with their parents all through their childhood has functioned more or less like the very vending machine which apparently is supposed to be unlike their relationship with Hashem. As they have grown up, their parents really have been expected to cater to their every whim and desire. This is yet another reason that the common vending machine illustration is imprecise and unhelpful for them. Moreover, teens’ interpersonal relationships are confusing, competitive, and mostly gratuitous and self-serving, thus making their own relationships another poor model for the relationship with Hashem they are supposed to want to perpetuate through Tefillah.
Adolescence is a very bad time for relationships, but their parents’ relationships with each other could be a positive model of the kind of selfless, long-haul relationship that is the sort we want with Hashem. Right? Ideally. But with a high divorce rate in America, and even healthy marriages often marred by the distraction of technology that has invaded our lives in recent years, it is no wonder that teens today often cannot look to their parents as a model for the kind of reciprocal and selfless relationship they would like to build with Hashem. In a world in which even “good” marriages often contain little communication besides a few minutes over an eat-and-run dinner spent staring more at the cell phone than at each other, kids today can’t necessarily be blamed for relating to relationships with a sense of cynicism or hopelessness. On a more practical level, too, if their parents’ relationship can be “nurtured” within the cacophony of distraction, why can’t the relationship with Hashem fostered through Tefillah take place while I talk to my friend, check my phone, or learn Chumash? We are wired to be distracted in the rest of our lives; Tefillah and the concomitant relationship with Hashem that it portends needs, at least in children’s minds and possibly in those of many adults as well, to shape up or ship out.
Besides the need to validate the constantly changing nature of our relationship with Hashem as an extension of teens’ evolving relationships with their parents and with each other, one other implication is in order. Perhaps instead of only teaching teens about Tefillah, what we really need to talk about is relationships. I say that for two reasons. One is that, as I have alluded to throughout this post, Tefillah will be better enhanced through a better appreciation of how relationships are meant to function. But second, perhaps Tefillah and the Divine relationship could ideally have a thing or two to teach us about our human interactions and relationships, and maybe we have thus far underutilized this potential of Tefillah in attempting to repair the human relationships in our lives. Perhaps rather than view Tefillah as an opportunity to mimic our human relationships – which, particularly in the case of teens, have little to teach us about Tefillah – we should seek to renew those human relationships by first rethinking Tefillah and discovering what it has to say about the nature of relationships in more general terms than the single most obvious relationship that it reportedly comes to maintain. And then, with our human relationships thus rethought and renewed, perhaps our Tefillah would not be too far behind.