Make shul ‘home’ for young adults and children
“Do them a favor and take them home. They’ll be happier there!” A congregant graced me with this casual (and clearly well-intentioned) comment as I wrangled my crying 3-year-old in the hall, my 1-year-old quietly climbing the bima stairs a few yards away with another little friend, as a post-services discussion panel was about to start. I put my parenting challenge of the moment on a brief pause. “No — we want to be a part of this,” I responded, attempting to achieve a polite but firm tone. Because on Shabbat morning, this is our home.
Some synagogues lament, “Where are the young people? Where are the families with children?” In writing on this topic, I do not claim to represent everyone in my generation, nor do I suggest that my generation’s concerns should supersede others’. And to be honest, I’m both the right and the wrong person to answer the question — I can rap about my best and worst experiences, but in the end I will show up anyway, so I’m probably not the person you are wondering about. Regardless, in my view, congregations benefit over the long term when they prioritize a welcoming environment for younger generations — so an effort to elevate and refocus this longstanding discussion might be helpful.
With these caveats, here are some “dos” and “don’ts” that may be worth contemplating explicitly within a synagogue community — whether you’re a board member, staff, or congregant.
DO focus on nurturing souls; DON’T get too hung up on warm bodies. I will never forget my rabbi’s impassioned speech explaining the limitations of throwing free alcohol at young people as a way to get them in the door. “We want souls, not bodies,” he said, and this is exactly what a synagogue’s philosophy should be — and what I have had occasion to repeat many times since. Overemphasis on headcount as a measure of success may lead to temporary increases in morale, and even increase short-term donations that may enable future programming. But it can also lead to backwards incentive structures, questionable conclusions about which financial investments produce a better return, and an anxious mentality that may project desperation to the targeted “bodies” and demoralize the very “souls” that would otherwise engage. Bringing in “souls” requires a different kind of investment, one that is unfortunately more difficult to measure on a balance sheet.
DO incentivize membership; DON’T impose (even positive-sounding) pressure to join. Many in my generation do not feel an impetus to join anywhere. Alternatives short of membership at an actual brick-and-mortar synagogue can meet the spiritual, social, and ritual needs of many Jews. Any hint of pressure to be a synagogue member may disincentivize returning, for fear we will experience more pressure — and while you meet the occasional folks who prioritize formal synagogue affiliation (like me!), I don’t know that many young families eager to sign on the dotted line without a great deal of vetting over a long period of time. Packages like a free year if you get married here, etc., are great, as are young adult rates and a willingness to negotiate membership fees. There is a fine line here — asking young families for a commitment to bringing in X number of families will probably come off as another obligation our crazy lives don’t need, but giving incentives without pressure (e.g., religious school discount for referrals) can work well in some situations.
DO invite us over and get to know us; DON’T treat us like trophies. Many young singles or couples — whether or not new to town or to the congregation — deeply appreciate personal invitations. Particularly for young people without family in town, these invitations can make the difference of whether we celebrate at all. Personal reachouts work better than shul-sponsored programs for this purpose. To be sure, some young people reject these, leading to an understandable sentiment of “why bother?” But a culture of invitation breeds a welcoming energy. Likewise, unless a congregation weaves young families naturally into the community, contrived opportunities designed to showcase or parade the youth in front of the rest of the congregation can feel inauthentic.
DO explore alternative programming; DON’T relegate us to it. Alternative prayer experiences and programming — both family-oriented and otherwise — can be a great way to attract those who may not connect with the standard service. These programs must be adequately supported and prioritized to succeed. In an era where online invitations and social media make it easy for anyone to hold and promote an event, “if you build it they will come” is no longer a guarantee, so organic/grassroots marketing strategies might be worth a look. But even if you already have successful programs in place, it’s best not to assume that all young people prefer them. My experience with this was moving to Atlanta as a single young woman without meaningful contacts in the Jewish community, and cold-walked into a synagogue for Friday night services. Almost no one approached me, and when someone finally did, it was to tell me sheepishly that I should come back for the rock Shabbat. At that time I was not particularly comfortable with instruments at services (this may surprise those of you who know that I now *lead* such services), so this made me feel uncomfortable. Was I not welcome at daily minyan or traditional services? Was I a freak if I wanted to attend those? After that, I decided JDate would be a better entry point, met a Jewish guy, and didn’t set foot into an Atlanta synagogue until we broke up three years later.
DO make efforts to be inclusive and accessible; DON’T dilute Judaism to do so. I have experienced a great deal of the “we can’t do X because we’ll scare someone off” mentality, which is in no way unique to the Jewish community. In the end, though, trying not to scare some people off scares others off, so a fear-based approach comes off as desperation or insecurity. The way not to scare off young people is to be nice, open-minded, and confident in the shul’s Jewish identity (whatever that identity is — how to become a shul with a secure Jewish identity is a separate and equally important question). Most people who walk into a synagogue are well aware that they’re walking into a synagogue. And while there are some people who walk in because they were coerced for some reason, there are indeed young people who are there because they actually want an unapologetically, traditionally Jewish experience.
DO engage us in conversation; DON’T shame us for our views. Younger Jews often don’t mind sharing our opinions, but don’t typically relish being scolded for a view, particularly one that is fairly mainstream within the younger Jewish population (Israel, intermarriage, supporting Black Lives Matter, etc.). Just as bad is ostracizing or dismissing an entire swath of Jews for their views without even engaging in direct dialogue about it. I realize this goes both ways, of course. We’re trying too!
DO offer child-friendly spaces; DON’T limit those spaces to remote areas. Most of us who bring our children to synagogue want to spend time with them there. A small play area in the back of the sanctuary allows our kids to absorb the service through immersion, to practice entertaining themselves quietly, and to establish a family routine of attending services together. A shelf of Jewish kids’ books right outside the sanctuary acknowledges that small kids will inevitably need to be removed for periods of time. I don’t want to feel like monthly Tot Shabbat is the only time my family should bother showing up. Babysitting options are likewise great, but parents shouldn’t be forced to use those options or go home. A kids’ table at kiddush (even an empty one!) and visible high chairs sends a clear message, as does the absence of these.
DO acknowledge our children; DON’T give disapproving looks or make negative comments when our children fail to meet a certain standard. I love it when people smile at my baby, ask questions of my older child, tell me how big they’ve grown and how beautiful they are. I even love it when people want to hold my baby. But I often feel genuine anxiety about people turning around to glare at us if my children happen to make a loud noise — or whisper behind our backs about how they shouldn’t be there even if they don’t make a noise. And then at other times or in other places or situations, I get the distinct sense that a noisy child will elicit no response at all, or smiles in my direction. The difference between these vibes is stark, and on some level, a family’s experience may just depend on the day and the crowd. I received secondhand negative feedback about decisions like allowing my child to accompany me on the bimah when reading Torah, for example, but I also received genuine positive feedback about that same incident!
Without claiming to be the arbiter of what will engage young families in a congregation (and without presuming that synagogues haven’t tried these things already!), perhaps some of these idea might advance the dialogue. I have heard more than one of my rabbis stand at the pulpit and gush about the wonderful sounds of laughter, running, and even occasional tears from little ones during services, describing these noises as music. The “bodies not souls” rabbi I quoted above consistently modeled the principle that children should be honored in a traditional service setting. When his children came up to him for attention during services, he would often pause, gently redirecting them when needed to minimize the disruption, but always signaling their importance in our community.
It is thanks to witnessing this for years that I have the confidence to let my kids play on the bimah stairs every now and then; to walk my 1-year-old around in an Ergo baby carrier so we can stay in the service; to listen to my 3-year-old loudly whisper “I want to go home” a few times before I swoop her out to explain that we’re staying for a bit longer; to sit her at the end of the mishloach manot assembly line and put her in charge of candy distribution even if it slows people down a bit. I have been around for awhile and can handle the occasional side-eye for it, but a negative first impression on a new family may mean they do not return.
So please think twice before telling parents to take children home — young parents bring our children to services because we want to find a shul where our family is home.