I read an article a few weeks ago in the Forward, entitled, “Stop Kicking Kids Out of Shul. Research Says Early Ritual Experience is Essential.” The authors describe a particular shul where, after services, the shul’s sanctuary often becomes a playground, how children run up and down the aisles and crawl under chairs, one child pretending to be the Rabbi. However, they mention how many shul members do not like the fact that children are using the bimah as a play space. They also describe the conflict between younger and older members, when, on the one hand, children can be disruptive in shul during davening, while, on the other hand, “children and young families are also the beating heart of a community.” We want young families and children in our shuls! In this article, the authors argue that young children need to experience synagogue life not just in children’s groups, but in shul itself. They argue that, “we shouldn’t relegate our children to the basement. If our hope is to fully prepare our children to be adult members of our Jewish communities, then they need access to sacred adult spaces as well.” Should we bring our young children into shul or not?
And I think that the answer is yes. We should bring our young children to shul, provided that they are made to understand what it means to be in a shul. The Shulchan Aruch begins its discussion of the laws of the sanctity of the synagogue by stating that we do not engage in levity in shuls. When we walk into shul, we should feel a sense of reverence. In fact, we should recite the verse, “ואני ברב חסדך אבוא ביתך אשתחוה אל היכל קדשך ביראתך – As for me, through Your abundant kindness I will enter Your House; I will prostrate myself toward Your Holy Sanctuary in awe of You.” To me, it’s not a question of whether young children should come into shul or not. It’s a question of what is the message that they are given about the shul experience. Yes, we have many candy men in our shul, and I think that it is appropriate to distribute candy within reason to children to sweeten Jewish experiences for them (although some parents have recommended that we distribute carrot and celery sticks instead). However, getting candy should not be their only frame of reference for what it means to be in shul. It’s a place where young children can daven even a little bit, or even read the aleph bet to themselves, so that they are made to understand that this is not a playground. This is a place where we talk to God.
And not every child needs to go into shul for the entire davening. If we want a young child to experience shul, depending on how easily a child can sit still, we may want to bring him or her into shul for a good five minutes and during those five minutes, make it special, make it a time of tefilla for your child. I have two sons. One of my sons has been able to sit in shul for a long time from a very young age, whereas my other son was not able to do so when he was younger. So I had different expectations for my two sons as to how long I expected them to sit in shul. However, when they walked into shul, for however long they did so, I tried to communicate to them that this is a place of tefilla, and that however long they were in shul, whether it was for five minutes or fifty minutes, it needs to be special. Let’s not only relegate shul for young children to be a time to collect candies or run through the aisles. Show your child the Torah, have your child kiss the Torah when it’s taken out of the Aron. Explain to your child all the different special things that are in a shul and all the special things that we do in a shul. And have them daven, as well. Make it sweet for them but also serious.
There is a tension between bringing a young child into shul who may make some noise and providing a quiet space for adults who legitimate wish to concentrate on their davening. It’s a tough balance to make everyone happy in this regard. My recommendation here is that parents who bring young children to shul who are inclined to sometimes be noisy should sit towards the back of the shul. In that way, if the children do indeed start making a lot of noise, then the parent can make an easy exit from shul while being minimally disruptive. At the same time, shushing parents and noisy young children angrily can often be counterproductive and create a tense environment in shul, which is certainly not conducive for a makom kedusha.
Ultimately, our children will treat our shuls the way we treat them. We have more power than we think to influence our children! But before we think about our expectations for our children in shul, let’s think about our expectations for ourselves.