The summer camp I went to, Camp Bayview, in St. Donat, Quebec, Canada, had services every Shabbat morning. We recited the Shema in both Hebrew and English, and I still hear the English words from camp: “…and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children…”
These words always referred to loving God with every bit of our hearts, our souls, and our might, but there’s an interesting distinction between the English word teach, and the Hebrew word veshenantem. The word veshenantem is plural, so we are supposed to teach verbally and by example — by saying it and doing it.
That’s how we show our kids the things that are important, both for us and certainly for them.
We run around for work, for ourselves, and for our families. Our lives are all about time, and most of us never have enough of it. We’re over-programmed, and our kids are beyond over-programmed.
Both of my parents worked, so on many days during the week my dad wasn’t home for dinner. But Friday night was a different story; it was Shabbat, and there was never an erev Shabbat that we didn’t sit down at the dinner table for kiddush, motzi, and conversation.
Those nights were great. I loved them more than playing with toys, or even with other kids. I had my parents’ attention, and they had mine. I could ask them anything (well, almost anything) and the lessons I learned at that Shabbat table shaped my life in many ways.
Most of my colleagues agree that in the old days, parents sat with their kids at Sunday minyan in shul before Hebrew school. They made time to show their kids what was important to them, and those moments are indelibly etched in their kids’ memories. Many of those same colleagues tell me that many parents drop the kids off on Sunday mornings and leave skid-marks on the carpet in their haste to do, well, whatever it is they do on Sunday mornings.
I’ve said this before, but my greatest memories as a child in shul are playing with the tzitzis on my dad’s tallis and having my dad wrap his tallis around me when he stood for the Amidah; that scent is still in my nostrils some 70+ years later.
There is nothing more heartwarming for me than watching kids sitting next to their parents during services. It’s the greatest way to teach — teaching by example.
Of course, you’re thinking, that’s easy for Lenny to say, he’s a cantor and a rabbi: WRONG!!!!!
After I graduated from the Yeshiva of Flatbush I went way to the left and was a revolving door Jew for many, many years — what’s a revolving door Jew? In Rosh HaShannah — out Yom Kippur.
Other than the high holidays I never went to shul. Never!
Don’t think that your lives are more complicated than ours was when our son, Wayne, was growing up. He went to a prep school and had Hebrew school three days a week. (He wasn’t enamored of it).
He played traveling team soccer both fall and spring from the time he was 8, played baseball, tennis, and took piano lessons all while having a prep school workload, and then had six hours of Hebrew school a week.
What we gave Wayne was in our home, in my parents’ home, and in the way we celebrated the holidays. Sure, he learned lots of stuff at Hebrew school, but we reinforced it at home.
We made him feel his Judaism in his heart, and to this day, he still does.
A story that I love and at the same time breaks my heart is the Wooden Bowl. I have no idea who wrote it or where I originally read it, but there it is:
A frail old man went to live with his son, his daughter-in-law, and his 4-year-old grandson. The old man’s hands trembled, his eyesight was blurred, and his step faltered. The family ate together at the table. But the elderly grandfather’s shaking hand and failing sight made eating difficult. Peas rolled off his spoon onto the floor. When he grasped the glass, milk spilled onto the tablecloth.
The son and daughter-in-law grew irritated with the mess. “We must do something about Father,” said the son. “I’ve had enough of his spilled milk, noisy eating, and food on the floor.” So the husband and wife set a small table in the corner. There, Grandfather ate alone while the rest of the family enjoyed dinner. Since he had broken a dish or two, his food was served in a wooden bowl.
The 4-year-old watched it all in silence.
One evening before supper, the father noticed his son playing with wood scraps on the floor. He asked the child sweetly, “What are you making?” Just as sweetly, the boy responded, “Oh, I am making a little bowl for you and Mama to eat your food when I grow up.” The 4-year-old smiled and went back to work.
The words struck the parents so that they were speechless. That evening, the husband took Grandfather’s hand and gently led him back to the family’s table. For the remainder of his days, he ate every meal with the rest of the family. And for some reason, neither husband nor wife seemed to care any longer when a fork was dropped, milk spilled, or the tablecloth soiled.
To quote the words written by Stephen Sondheim in the Broadway musical “Into the Woods”: “Careful the things you say. Children will listen. Careful the things you do. Children will see — and learn. Children may not obey but children will listen. Children will look to you for which way to turn to learn what to be.
“Careful before you say ‘Listen to me.’ Children will listen.”
Cantor/Rabbi Lenny Mandel of West Orange has been the chazzan at Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson for more than the past quarter century.