Welcoming Children and Families into the Main Sanctuary Service
As a child growing up my in my Conservative synagogue, Temple Zion Israelite Center, I remember being allowed into the main service for the High Holy Days for one reason, and one reason alone: to hear the Shofar. Throughout the entire holiday season, my sister and I were relegated to the youth service down the hall, where we would answer Jewish trivia questions in the hopes of receiving candy. At key points in the service, however, my mom would come into the room and invite my sister and me into the main service so we could hear the call of the Shofar. And if we behaved during that moment, we would get a prize. I remember one year asking for a monster truck poster to hang in my room (Bigfoot).
Over the years, I was gradually allowed to be in the service for longer periods of time, so long as I was absolutely quiet and still. The truth is, I actually liked going to shul, even back then, and I’ve been happy to sit and listen to the melodies and the sermon. However, even the slightest appearance of not following decorum resulted in looks and comments from other congregants.
The look and feel of the Jewish community’s religious services has been a discussion throughout the generations. Following the emancipation of the Jewish community in mid-19th century France, when all of a sudden the Jewish community could compare its practices to the rest of the world, founders of the Reform Movement knew the feel of services had to change.
“They were embarrassed, too, should neighbors accustomed to the decorum of the Protestant or Catholic church visit the synagogue and witness a spectacle of men wrapped in strange prayer shawls noisily davening a repetitive liturgy while children tore up and down the aisles...In synagogue worship, they began to pray in unison and introduced a professional choir and organ to render their hymns. The rabbi led services covered in ministerial robes as bare-headed worshipers listened in solemn silence.”1
My, how things have changed.
In today’s world, where families are encouraged to come to shul together, where men and women sit together, how does one simultaneously achieve the grandeur and decorum of prayer sought by early innovators while maintaining the welcome and heimish feel that so many of us desire?
As a parent, I can tell you that bringing kids to shul today is challenging—and I’m not the one who does this every Shabbat. (Shayna gets all the credit.) Simply organizing the snacks and toys, and getting the kids dressed in Shabbat-appropriate clothing is a daunting task. Then, coming into the building, setting up a makeshift camp with all of our supplies, all in the hopes of making it through Musaf so we can get to Kiddush is the next mission. During Kiddush, we nourish our children with delicious food and then let them run around on the playground, all in the hopes of everyone taking a Shabbat nap.
However, in my opinion, the effort is totally worth it. My kids feel at home at Temple Emunah. On Shabbat morning, they know to find Buzz Hausner so that they can get their Shabbat sticker, they know with whom to sit so they can share a story or two, and they know who will open one of the snacks while Eema and Papi aren’t looking. Because they’re at Emunah so often, they also have learned many of the prayers, internalized our congregational melodies, and know where to find the cookies during Kiddush.
I can’t tell you how many people say what a blessing it is to see young people in the sanctuary and how much joy they get seeing the next generation at Temple Emunah.
Having said that, it can still be challenging juggling the different expectations in our community regarding bringing children into the main sanctuary service.
Recognizing that, as a community, we don’t want children only at Tot Shabbat, Mini Minyan, and Jr. Congregation (all of which have grown and now meet twice a month), we have crafted a pamphlet, “Welcoming Children and Families to the Main Sanctuary Service.” This publication, reviewed by members of the Religious Committee, Tot Shabbat community, staff, and lay leadership, is meant as a helpful guide to remind parents about communal expectations in the main service while also empowering parents to realize that they and their families belong.
Some Suggestions Include:
Where to Sit: It is wise to sit on an aisle. Your child is free to be at home on the floor near you. Young children often like coming forward to watch the Ark being opened during the Torah service. Otherwise, kids can help the service leaders focus by staying clear of the bimah (raised stage) and the amud (Torah Reading table).
Voices in the Main Sanctuary: Happy children’s voices add joy to our worship. If needed, we appreciate your giving your child a break in the upper lobby outside the sanctuary. You still will be able to hear what is happening in the service there. It is never too early to begin to teach a child that we make some moments of our worship extra special by our silence and respect. Whispering or quiet hugs are good ways to make the Silent Amidah and Mourner’s Kaddish meaningful. The sermon is an excellent time to stretch little legs in the upper lobby or playground.
Creating a welcoming environment: Congregants attending services without children play a key role in creating a welcoming environment. Please proactively make parents/caregivers feel welcomed by offering a place to sit near you and introducing them to your friends; offer to entertain a child (kids love meeting new people), and most importantly, provide reassuring smiles throughout the service acknowledging that they belong.
“Welcoming Children and Families to the Main Sanctuary Service” brochures will begin appearing in the pews and on our shul’s website in the coming weeks.
Sadly, often the only feedback parents get in the service is when their children are making inappropriate noise. If we want to ogle their cute outfits and their silly laughs, and feel reassured that our tradition is in good hands, it means tolerating the occasional disruption. Our synagogue’s opening statement on the website states: “Temple Emunah is a dynamic, engaging, and welcoming congregational family.”
It is my hope that this brochure will enable us to truly embrace our community’s vision.
Rabbi Michael Fel