Raising Religiously Resilient Children

Photo: Yehoshua Halevi


My grown daughter once asked me if I felt I had been successful in raising my children. I responded by providing an outline of my and my husband’s main goals of chinuch, and then asked my daughter to evaluate for herself. Just as every institution has a mission statement that is reevaluated regularly, each family needs to have a vision and central focus in raising children, and to be flexible when necessary. While every family, hopefully, has religiosity as a goal, the question remains: how do we define what that means, and how do we go about achieving that goal? Put simply, what is an effective formula for raising children who are strong in their beliefs and have a real relationship with Hashem?

Part of this question is how much of our chinuch mission is entrusted to the school system and how much of it we personally pursue at home. Walk into any preschool and you can hear the children singing, “Hashem is here; Hashem is there; Hashem is truly everywhere.” Unfortunately, for many children, that is where their recognition of Hashem begins and ends. Most schools make the assumption that knowledge of Hashem is a given, and they can start teaching His Torah and mitzvot. The results are students who are proficient in hilchot Shabbat and in-depth commentaries on Tanach, yet lack any meaningful relationship with Hashem or emotional connection with the Torah knowledge they acquired. Is it any wonder that many of these students end up declining religiously, deeming observance unworthy of their time and energy? This tendency is particularly strong among those who don’t solidify their commitment by spending a year studying Torah in Israel after high school. Having taught Torah, baruch Hashem, for three decades on the elementary, middle and high school levels in the US, and currently on the seminary level in Israel, I continually encounter these type of students. They are very Jewishly educated but are spiritually hollow. Their dominant feeling is that Yiddishkeit is a burden, encroaching upon their personal freedom. Students are looking for the relevancy of the texts they study and how Judaism is meaningful in their modern lives.

It is crucial for parents to be actively involved in erecting the foundation of their children’s education. Some parents mistakenly relegate the personal connection with Hashem—the very basis upon which the school needs to build—to the school system. Teachers try to “cover educational ground,” not necessarily “plant spiritual seeds.” It is imperative that parents take a closer look at their responsibility in the chinuch process. We must have clear goals of what we want to achieve and seek direction on how to succeed.

Rethinking Chinuch
The source for the mitzvah of chinuch in the Torah offers excellent guidance in this quest. The Meshech Chochmah (Rabbi Meir Simcha Hakohen of Dvinsk [1843-1926]) highlights Bereishit 18:19, which describes Hashem’s decision to reveal to Avraham Avinu the impending destruction of Sodom. The pasuk states: I love him for instructing his descendants and his household to safeguard the way of Hashem to perform acts of righteousness and justice. The greatness of Avraham Avinu was manifest in his disseminating knowledge of Hashem to his household. In a similar vein, the Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvot  [Aseh 3] says that we can come to love Hashem through contemplation of the wonders of creation. He adds that part of this mitzvah is to bring other people closer to Hashem and to tell them of His goodness and kindness. When someone loves another person, he wants to publicize it. If you have ever witnessed the excitement of a new mother or  newly engaged person, this concept is self-explanatory. Both exude enthusiasm; the mom will talk to anyone who will listen about her new baby and the bride will do the same about her prospective soulmate. Similarly, one who truly loves Hashem will want to share that knowledge with everyone else.

When a child comes home wide-eyed with excitement and enthusiasm about Judaism, parents who express even one word of sarcasm have begun to demolish their own educational foundation.

Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon [With Hearts Full of Love (Brooklyn, NY, 2009), p. 254] suggests that the mitzvah of chinuch falls under the larger rubric of love of Hashem. When parents are full of love for Hashem and His Torah, they want others to feel the same way. This type of chinuch is not reduced to a list of “do’s and don’ts,” but is rather a beautiful experience of love. Do our children overhear us grumble “I have to bentch now” or do they hear us say “Baruch Hashem, I have the special opportunity to thank Hashem for the wonderful food that I just enjoyed”? We can’t possibly expect our children to love Hashem and keep mitzvot simply because we tell them to do so. Chinuch begins with parents deepening their own relationship with Hashem, making it real, and sharing that enthusiasm with their children. Parents cannot convey a “do as I say, but not as I do” attitude towards mitzvah observance. A father who talks throughout davening cannot then go ahead and rebuke his children for talking in shul. Our actions speak louder than words, and our feelings speak louder than our actions. Rabbi Dovid Kaplan, a senior lecturer at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem, tells a story of a boy who went off the derech. The boy described that the “straw that broke the camel’s back” was when his neighbor bought a new car. The boy noted that his father always spoke about how much he loved Torah and how excited it made him feel. However, when he saw his father’s reaction to the new car, he saw what really excited his father. Children need to witness their parents’ passion for Yiddishkeit.

Laying the Groundwork of Faith
So how do we begin? The first step in any relationship is knowledge of the other person. The more we know a person, the deeper our relationship with him or her. This is how love develops and is enhanced. To realistically reach this level of excitement in ahavat Hashem, we need to work on the building blocks of this relationship. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, writes in a teshuvah [Yoreh Deah 3:76] that the most important part of chinuch is to teach emunah. He advises parents to consistently tell their children that everything they have is from Hashem, and that they are only the emissaries. When a child realizes that everything he possesses is from Hashem, he will develop a natural love for Him and for his parents for being the messengers. The child will also feel an emotional connection and intuition for thanking Hashem, feeling that He is the source of all blessing. A child growing up in this environment develops the feeling that Hashem is as real and present as the sun in the sky. Hashem must be the byword in our lexicon, and this connection must be constantly strengthened. Of course, people pay lip service to expressions such as “im yirtzeh Hashem” and “baruch Hashem” but they are often articulated without conviction. We need to live by these credos.

I learned this lesson very clearly from one of my daughters. I was driving around Beverly Center, a shopping mall in Los Angeles, looking for parking. After I had circled many times in vain, I found a parking space right in front of the mall. I promptly exclaimed, “Wow, am I lucky!” to which my daughter, who was three years old at the time, piped up from the back, “Ima, todah Hashem.” The younger a child is introduced to Hashem as the source of all good, the less emotional resistance he will have toward Him when he grows up.

The natural outgrowth of love is joy. Rav Feinstein was once asked why so many Jews who were moser nefesh to keep Shabbat did not merit descendants who were shomrei Shabbat. His famous explanation was that these parents constantly expressed the difficulty of being a Jew. If we aim to inspire a love of Hashem so that our children remain loyal to Torah, we need to breathe genuine simchah into our Yiddishkeit. Our children live in a generation of immediate gratification; with the touch of a finger they can access endless hours of entertainment. No wonder they are easily bored with a lengthy davening that does not engender a feeling of gratification! We adults also grow disinterested in aspects of our Judaism. When we parents grow complacent in our own observance, our relationship with Hashem becomes stale and joy is hard to access. To raise committed Jews, both in practice and emotional commitment, we must take the lead with our own spiritual development.

Becoming Spiritually-Oriented Parents
About twenty years ago, when I began teaching adult women, I asked a number of rabbanim what my teaching focus should be. Their unanimous response was that I must reach the heart, not only the mind, and to incorporate Chassidut into my teachings for this reason. My experience is that learning the deeper meaning behind rituals has the power to transform the habitual into the holy. For example, Chanukah becomes a time to access the hidden light of Creation, and to sit by the candles to meditate on our souls, which are referred to as “a candle of Hashem.” On a deeper level, the Purim seudah is the King (Hashem) asking “Esther,” the hidden part of us, what we desire, and He will fulfill that request. Children who are raised learning deeper Torah insights will find their religious practices more meaningful. Over time, these youngsters will recognize that this kind of Torah lifestyle is more profoundly satisfying than the fleeting fun of technology. As they mature, they will seek out more experiences that respond to the yearning of their souls, as they look for purpose and value in their lives.

As a teacher, I confront the same challenge every year: how to foster a student’s personal growth when her home is not a growth-oriented environment. For example, I strive to teach my students that Pesach night is a powerful time for tefillah. The Seder has eighteen berachot that directly correspond to the berachot of our daily Shemoneh Esrei; therefore, it is important to avoid extraneous conversation during the Seder. However, my students invariably tell me that their Seder experience at home is focused on going through the text as quickly as possible. Why? So that t
here will be more time to socialize with the extended family that is visiting. My students often feel that if they try to add some spirituality to the ritual, they are met with a derisive response from family members. Perhaps with a sarcastic comment like, “Does the Rebbetzin have anything more to add?” Parents don’t realize that they have the power to instantly destroy their own finely-built families, just as a tall building can be demolished with the push of a button. We can undo many years of hard work in chinuch with the deadly weapon of cynicism. When a child comes home wide-eyed with excitement and enthusiasm about Judaism, parents who express even one word of sarcasm have begun to demolish their own educational foundation.

When we parents grow complacent in our own observance, our relationship with Hashem becomes stale, and joy is hard to access.

This cynicism may stem from the parents’ lack of confidence in their own religious practices. And sometimes the child perceives more negativity than was intended. Nevertheless, cynicism is always destructive. Another example is when a meshulach comes to the door soliciting tzedakah. If we mumble under our breath, “Another handout? Why doesn’t he just go get a job?,” then we have tainted the mitzvah of tzedakah for our children. Rav Feinstein emphasizes further that sending our children to give tzedakah to the meshulach at the door, instead of personally giving him the attention he deserves, is also not positive chinuch. We have not taught our children to be kind and giving people; rather, we have modeled laziness and taught our children to disdain those on a lower socioeconomic level. Likewise, speaking derogatorily about rabbis or teachers sends a message to our children to disrespect Torah authorities. This behavior is akin to dynamite that obliterates a building’s very foundation. If our goal is to raise Torah-committed children, then we first must eradicate our own destructive behavior.

The Divine in Daily Life
The pasuk in Yirmiyahu [7:28] says: “Faith was lost, it was eliminated from their mouths.” The Alter of Kelm (Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv [1824-1898]) expounds that faith is lost when “it is eliminated from our mouths,” that is, when we don’t constantly talk about Hashem. It is imperative for parents to connect with Hashem all the time. When discussing financial success or any good fortune, it is important to show gratitude to Hashem. Likewise, when faced with challenges, we need to acknowledge that this too is from Hashem; a challenge is the Divine call to introspect and to learn from the experience. When Hashem is “part of the family” and an intrinsic part of one’s life, then a youngster will be open to learning what the Torah expects from him. A year of study in Israel shows young adults that a Torah lifestyle is real for people, not just a theory. All people crave purpose and spirituality. Everyone craves structure and meaning. Imagine a family that joins together at the dinner table and shares a short message from Rabbi David Ashear’s Daily Emunah e-mail series. Such a family is nourished intellectually and emotionally by the heightened awareness of Hashem. This family feels Hashem not just on Shabbat, or in shul, but in all aspects of their lives. This is our mission: “placing Hashem in front of us at all times.”

Another powerful tool to create this constant awareness is telling stories of hashgachah pratit, Divine Providence, at the Shabbat table. When each family member shares a moment when she felt Hashem’s presence, it strengthens her spiritual connection. Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein, famed mashgiach at the Mir Yeshiva during World War II, was known to give his daughters a small coin for each hashgachah pratit event that they would relate to him. We often play the game “I Spy” with our children. Imagine the profound effect of a Jewish version of “I Spy,” identifying the Hand of Hashem intimately involved in our lives. When parents recount a story that clearly shows a series of coincidences, they should preface the story with “What hashgachah pratit happened to me today!” When this becomes our manner of speaking, our children will also begin to frame their stories in the same way. Children who hear about hashgachah will look for hashgachah themselves. Over time, they will develop a hashgachah perspective on the world.

Chinuch, however, extends beyond this emotional connection. When Hashem is one’s focus, we need to include middot as well. It is the parents’ responsibility to teach their children to act appropriately, not just because it is good manners, but because it is the way to emulate Hashem. When a child does an act of kindness, praising the child for acting in a God-like way reinforces this message. Rabbi Aharon Kotler, zt”l, founder of Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha, notes in Mishnat Rav Aaron that we mistakenly think that deveikut is all about religious ritual—covering our heads in tallitot and davening fervently. But the best way to cling to Hashem, he says, is to follow in His ways and imitate His attributes. Hashem is kind and merciful, so we need to behave likewise. Smiling at others, complimenting them, and helping people—these are all forms of deveikut. The message to our children is that Judaism encompasses all aspects of personal conduct, not just formal religious observance. Hashem gives without expecting reciprocation; we need to follow suit.

In raising my family, I have found that the more one brings Hashem into daily life, the deeper the connection. Two of my favorite ideas reflect this concept. One is the explanation for the shortest line of the prayer Avinu Malkeinu, asking Hashem to inscribe us in the book of merits. Rabbi Salomon explains that we are really asking to be inscribed in the book of opportunities to do mitzvot. We ask Hashem, “If you have a mitzvah to get done, please give it to me.” This interpretation underscores the belief that it is a privilege to do mitzvot and not a burden. When we are presented with an opportunity to serve God, we must grab the chance and be grateful for the connection. Mitzvot are not a checklist, but precious opportunities for growth. A practical application of this idea is training children to always carry extra school supplies, so that they are equipped to help someone who has forgotten something. Children learn to feel the joy and fulfillment in giving.

Chinuch begins with parents deepening their own relationship with Hashem, making it real, and sharing that enthusiasm with their children.

The second idea is quoted by Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, zt”l, former rosh yeshivah of the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland. When the Torah describes Hagar’s banishment from Avraham Avinu’s home, it states that she wandered lost in the desert. Rashi notes that this refers to her returning to idolatry. The obvious question is, where exactly is that alluded to in the text? The Torah states that she was lost, not that she returned to idolatry. Rabbi Gifter explains that the fact that Hagar felt that she was lost was indicative that she had left the teachings of Avraham Avinu. A believing Jew should never feel that he is lost, because we are exactly where Hashem wants us to be. Therefore, the fact that the text says Hagar was lost indicates that she was lost spiritually as well; she had lost the true perspective on life.

Before the days of GPS and Waze, I would drive around and often lose my way. It was at those moments that my children would remind me that we are not really lost. We are in the place Hashem wants us to be.  As they grew older, I extended this concept to other parts of their lives. So often we find ourselves in situations that we never imagined. Recognition that Hashem orchestrates everything helps us cope through challenging times. In general, it is much easier to navigate these difficulties when the emotional relationship with Hashem is already solidified by a history of His intimate closeness and personal care.

Even when this foundation is in place, the cementing of the relationship is tefillah. Parents are obligated to daven for their children every single day—and the more specific our prayers, the better. In  the Morning Prayers, we beseech Hashem that our children should find the ways of Torah to be sweet and pleasant. We need to pray for success in all areas of their lives. Rabbi Shimshon Pincus, zt”l, teaches that children are born from the tears of their mothers; it is the “watering” of their success throughout life. Taking children to the doctor for ear and throat infections are little reminders to keep davening for every detail of their lives. This constant tefillah should not be kept quiet—our children need to know that we daven for them! Sometimes I find a note in my daughter’s handwriting left next to my siddur. It might remind me that the teacher is switching seating assignments that morning, and to please daven that she should be placed next to a friend. Children should understand that davening doesn’t only take place in front of the Shabbat candles, but at all times throughout the week. When your daughter comes home from school and you ask her how she did on her test, mention that you davened that she should succeed. The principle of “the apple does not fall far from the tree” does not hold true in hurricane winds. We are living in stormy times. The best protection we can offer our family is our prayers and tears.

Was I successful in raising my children? I need to wait until, im yirtzeh Hashem, I watch my children raise their children, and the grandchildren raise the following generation. Only then will I be able to answer the question. Until then, I will continue to daven.

Shira Smiles has taught Torah to women worldwide for three decades. She currently teaches at Darchei Bina, a women’s seminary for gap-year students in Jerusalem, and gives several parashah classes and Chumash chaburahs weekly, many of which are streamed over the Internet and viewed across the globe. She is the author of five books, including Torah Tapestries on Chumash (Jerusalem, 2012).


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This article was featured in the Spring 2018 issue of Jewish Action.
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