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‘Is Hashem upset at you? Is that why you’re davening at home?’ The challenges of teaching Jewish values during a pandemic

My kids have been wondering why I’m around this much. They have always watched me going to yeshiva to study and teach. They’ve seen me go to synagogue three times a day for their entire young lives. My wife and I have tried to explain this unique situation to them, but they’re still a little too young to understand. Last week, my son asked me if I wasn’t going to shul anymore because God didn’t want me there. “Is Hashem upset at you?” He asked. “Is that why you’re davening at home?”

It broke my heart. I’m afraid I appear hypocritical to him. As Orthodox Jews, we have tried to instill in our kids with our values. My son knows how vital shul is for me. I always make sure to be on time for all prayer services, never missing one. As hard as it has been for me over the years not being able to read him a bedtime story because I am rushing out to teach or pray, I always made sure to go to shul, even when I don’t feel great. Obviously, I do make sure to spend plenty of quality time with them. While it may seem wrong to some people to prioritize shul over activities with one’s children, to us, instilling these values is of the highest order.

I knew staying at home during this crisis would be difficult. The disruption of our daily routines, getting laid off from work and having the kids cooped up in the house all day were things we prepared for, even if not to the degree that we are experiencing it. Shul closings were only a matter of time once public schools closed, and while that’s been hard, I was able to get ready for it mentally.

What I did not foresee was the struggle that this is causing to the religious upbringing of our children.

It’s a big part of going to shul every day — instilling my religious values in my children. And it’s a big challenge to not have that anchor.

I have tried explaining to my son the religious edict VeChai Bahem — “You shall live by them” (Leviticus 18:5). In the Talmud in Sanhedrin 74a it’s explained that most of the time, one must violate the mitzvos rather than die. But my son asked why I would be in danger by going out to daven with a minyan, since that is what God wants me to do. “But you are doing a mitzvah,” he keeps telling me. And I don’t know how to respond.

Then there’s the question of outside influences. In normal times, we have strived not to allow our kids any screen time at all. Part of the reason is that according to scientist John Medina, even a minimal amount of screen time a day can seriously affect a child’s ability to pay attention.

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But the main reason is that most things that one finds online, even on something as seemingly innocuous as YouTube, have a lot of content that doesn’t align with our moral standards. Though there are many kosher DVDs, we believe that the idea of having a computer as a form of recreation is a slippery slope. Once children are used to screens, it’s hard to keep them from one when the kosher entertainment is not available. Because of this, it can be a gateway to other things that may seem benign to others but not us.

But now that the kids are home all day, our conviction regarding screen time is wavering. While my wife tries her best to keep them occupied with her homemade kindergarten curriculum, they are not cooperating as well as we hoped. They are not used to this setting, and don’t really follow directions. And because we aren’t letting them outside due to the dangers of getting and transmitting the coronavirus, they’re been getting up to all kinds of mischief in the house — opening all the closets and emptying them, spilling out all the contents of my wife’s purse, drawing on my work papers… probably things happening in household across America. My kids also invented a new sport: feeding dangerous things to the baby behind our backs.

The prospect of just placing them in front of a screen instead of chasing after them is very enticing.

We keep trying to satisfy my son’s curious mind while at the same time coping with our commitment to the way we want to raise our children. And we don’t have it as bad as many others. Though my wife lost her job and my earnings have slowed, we don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from, a stress many Orthodox Jewish families are now facing.

No one can be certain what the next day may bring, or what America will look like when this is finally behind us. But it’s at times like these — stripped of a lot of the support of community and institutions and habit — that our children see the depth of our personal commitment to Jewish living, perhaps especially when we’re struggling to answer their questions.

Rabbi Eliezer Brand is a talmudic Researcher and teacher and resides in Brooklyn with his wife, son and two daughters.

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