I used to love going to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I’d arrive at shul with my machzor in hand and feel the reverence of the holy days ahead of us. I would sing with all my heart at the end of Neilah, feeling at one with the community; that we had been successful and our prayers had been answered. After the birth of my first son, my relationship with High Holiday davening changed.
When my first was little, I would go to shul for Shabbat as often as possible. As he started to get more mobile, it became more difficult.
As his second Rosh Hashanah neared, I voiced my concerns to my older sister, already an experienced mom. She said to me that she didn’t understand the difficulty. “Couldn’t I just show up to shul with snacks, books, and toys and he would sit quietly next to me for most of davening?” Her angel of a 6-year-old daughter would sit by her side without a peep.
So I decided to try my luck. To say I was unsuccessful is an understatement. I spent all of the davening chasing after him. He crawled under the rows of chairs as if they were tunnels to be explored, dropped Cheerios everywhere he turned, and screamed out ”Truck! Truck! Truck!” which he mispronounced in quite an unfortunate and embarrassing way.
From then on, I decided that I can live without the stares and glares of the other women as I tried to shush my son and I would only partake in minimal services. My husband did offer to switch with me at any point.
My family grew and I continued to show up for shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah and the very end of Yom Kippur davening. But in my heart, I missed the rest of it. I missed the singing and swaying and the sense of unity that one feels as the community comes together and begs G-d for forgiveness.
So last year, armed with my three spirited boys in their matching Shabbat shirts, we marched to shul on Rosh Hashanah morning. My plan was to arrive not long before shofar blowing and to see how long we would last before I was overly embarrassed. We brought lots of snacks and toys, and everything started off great. It wasn’t long before the ruckus ensued, however. This one’s yogurt spilled, that one took another kid’s car, and on and on it went.
In an effort to contain the drama, I veered my crew towards the back of the shul where there was a small landing behind double doors. I tried to squeeze a few more minutes out of my time at shul and kept going back and forth between the two areas. During an especially exasperating moment, as I was ready to pack it up and call it quits, a woman from the shul came to the back. She said to me, “I see you are struggling to keep the kids quiet, but I want to let you know that it’s okay. Shul is a place for families. It’s okay and normal for them to be inside.”
At that instant, standing there, her words meant the world to me. It was okay for me to be in shul with my kids. It was okay for them to take part in our holiday traditions. I so appreciated that woman’s thoughtfulness. Although we didn’t stick around much longer and escaped to the park nearby, her words have stuck with me.
Shul is a place for families. Our Jewish communities revolve around shuls. It would be a pity to shelter our kids from the shul experience on the most pivotal days of the year, and it would be a tragedy to shelter our shuls from our children.
If we want our children to grow up with a love of Jewish prayer, and to be shul-goers, we have to expose them early on to the very focal point of Jewish life. We have to make shul a comfortable and inviting place for families and provide our kids with a positive shul experience, and not one where they’re shooed out the back door when they ask for a snack.
As we enter the High Holidays this year, I will have this in mind as I take my kids to shul. They will (hopefully) stay by my or my husband’s side for short doses, even if only for key moments. Because, although it is difficult, and sometimes a struggle, I see how important it is, not just for my own soul, but for theirs as well.