Rachel Bell

The shul blues — and a request for kindness 

Why would anyone, let alone kids, want to go to synagogue, if they are criticized and made to feel unacceptable?

Four years ago, I adopted my wonderful, rambunctious, funny son, who was always curious and opinionated. He was a tiny 3-year-old, because of a calcium absorption problem. He is now a much larger 7-year-old. And one of the things he is very opinionated about is wearing a kippah. He just ain’t going to do it! Those annoying hair clips are hateful. And going to shul (synagogue)? Only if his best friend goes! It’s a lonely experience when people criticize you for walking around being bored, and embarrassing when they dress you down for tearing around having fun. I understand how these shul-goers feel, but I do wish people would be a little more tolerant.

I have not been consistent in my Shabbat observance myself, but I have always liked to go to shul. Dressed in an unplanned uniform of colorful skirt and black T-shirt, I would try out different neighborhood shuls, always curious about their personalities and atmospheres. I loved many different types of shuls, small ones and big ones, simple ones and fancy ones.

I have been to enormous, nearly empty shuls with stained glass windows and intricate carvings, and tiny shuls with plastic furniture and simple spangled white curtains separating men and women. I have been to upstairs shuls and downstairs shuls, shuls in basements of big buildings and shuls above one-room stores, shuls in someone’s home and shuls in schoolrooms, shuls on the port and shuls downtown. Every one has its own atmosphere and sound quality, its special character and feeling.

My son however, is not so into shul. He only wants to go if his best friend is going. If best friend’s mom confirms they will be there, my son will willingly walk the half-hour to shul. We have a very pleasant walk across a bridge over punters rowing down a canal, then down streets with closed shops with all sorts of colorful items in their windows, and through a square full of pigeons that my son loves to stampede and chase away, to get to his favorite shul. If his friend is not planning to come though? No dice; he would rather stay home and build a fort out of blankets and pillows and hide inside.

And wearing a kippah? Five minutes after we get to shul, he tears it off his head.

I wish he liked shul more. I wish he enjoyed the atmosphere, the people, the special quality of the time there. But he doesn’t. I keep hoping it will change, but he’s a kid, he likes to play, and the times when people have told him to be quiet, not interrupt, are burned in his brain. I can’t tell people not to shush him, not to want quiet for their tefillah (prayer); it’s natural for them to want to pray in quiet concentration. But it makes my son even less willing to go. Who would want to go where they are criticized, made to feel unacceptable?

So I continue to wish my son liked shul more. I wish he was more tolerant of different experiences. I wish he was more amenable to trying something different, a new friend, maybe even a new, closer, shul. But he isn’t. I hope people in our shul will accept children making their busy sounds of play and not be critical. But they are. That’s the way it is.

I hope someone reading this will think twice the next time they shush a child, or criticize a parent when a son doesn’t have a kippah. Yes, it is good to set limits. But perhaps these limits can wait a while, for when kids are older. Not everyone has been to shul since birth. Not everyone is going to go no matter what they experience there. Kind experiences can make all the difference to young, and not so young, minds.

About the Author
Rachel Bell considers living in Israel a challenge, as is writing for a living for over 20 years. Her family, from Tzfat and later Tel Aviv, left her a legacy of commitment to the project of self-determination and indigenous self-actualization called Israel.