A Kid-Friendly Congregation

Sermon given December 20, 1996, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

In recent years, some expressions of Judaism have been given names that sound more like medical specialties. For example, some Jews do not belong to a synagogue or observe Judaism in any way. Nevertheless, they feel very Jewish in their hearts. They practice “cardiac Judaism.” Others proclaim that they have no interest in going to Temple themselves, and yet they do want their children to attend Religious School and have a strong Jewish identity. This group practices “pediatric Judaism.”

This latter group makes me think of Rabbi Samuel E. Karff of Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, where I was raised. Once, in Confirmation class, Rabbi Karff presented this dilemma: “Imagine that we were forced to choose between two extremes. We could have parents who came to Temple but did not bring their children, or parents who dropped their children off at the Temple, but never attended themselves. Which would we prefer?” My classmates and I thought that the answer was simple. Of course, we would prefer that the children go to Temple. Children are the future of Judaism. Naturally, they should be our focus.

Rabbi Karff disagreed. If children are brought to Temple, but their parents do not attend, the children will learn by their parents’ example. They will stay far away from Judaism themselves when they are grown. On the other hand, if parents go to the synagogue, their kids may come to see Judaism as a serious adult avocation, one which they would envy. Very likely, those children would study and embrace Judaism as adults.

Eighteen years have passed since Rabbi Karff posed that dilemma to my Confirmation class, and yet the issues he raised remain very much alive. Today, though, the discussion focuses on synagogues themselves. Some have called on congregations to be more “kid-friendly.” Others wonder if doing so will detract from our ability to inspire adults.

A few months ago, Rabbi Stahl called my attention to an article entitled, “How to Choose a Kid-Friendly Synagogue for the High Holidays.” The article’s premise was that parents would want to select a congregation that would not restrict their child’s right to be in the sanctuary during worship services. Rabbi Richard Thaler of Sutton Place Synagogue in New York City was lauded for his remarks. He said, “In my synagogue, children are encouraged to remain even during the sermon. . . . I’m thrilled when I hear babies crying. You can’t start too early in introducing a child to the synagogue.”

In one respect, I agree with this “High Priest of pediatric Judaism.” I endorse the notion that it’s never too early to bring babies to Temple. Every month, we hold TOT Shabbat for that purpose. That twenty-minute service includes Deena Bloomstone’s songleading and “The World’s Worst Puppet Show,” conducted by yours truly, the world’s worst puppeteer. Last week, Rabbi Stahl made his debut appearance at TOT Shabbat, and he brought the Torah scroll itself down to the level of even the youngest toddler.

Until recently, we had indicated that TOT Shabbat was intended for children between eighteen months and five years of age. In the last few months, though, we have begun encouraging parents to bring even newborn infants to that service. How wonderful that parents want their children to have some of their earliest, warm, wonderful family experiences here in their synagogue home. It really never is too early to bring babies to the Temple. This was even further proven last Sunday, when Sisterhood hosted a magnificent “Cradle Roll” party for Temple newborns, complete with a really good puppet show!

TOT Shabbat is noisy and sometimes even wild. That’s how it should be. Yes, we sing the Barechu and recite the Shema. We kindle Sabbath light, drink the wine, and eat hallah, all with the appropriate blessings. We do introduce the children to Jewish worship, and yet the service is not meant to stimulate adults intellectually or to appeal to grown-up spirituality.

With their own spiritual needs in mind, some TOT Shabbat parents stay for the 8:00 service, as I do. Some very young infants can sleep through the main service, but most of the TOT Shabbat kids go to the nursery. Other parents come at 8:00 on a different Friday. In doing so, they show their children that they take Judaism seriously for themselves. We do not practice exclusively pediatric Judaism at Temple Beth-El. Jewish worship is a serious, adult endeavor.

That conviction brings me back to Rabbi Thaler, who loves to hear babies crying during his sermon. I do not. Rabbi Stahl, you don’t either, do you? I didn’t think so. Some of our congregants have told Rabbi Stahl and me that they also do not appreciate noisy children, or noisy adults, which may even be a bigger problem, during solemn portions of our worship service.

Others, though, feel that all Temple programs and services should be “kid-friendly.” They tell us that synagogues have traditionally been filled with the joyful sounds of children. They charge that Reform Temples put too much emphasis on decorum, while more traditional synagogues are more welcoming to families.

This controversy, however, is not unique to Reform Judaism, or even to the twentieth century. In fact, it was discussed by Rabbi Menachem ben Judah de Lozano fully four hundred years ago.

Menachem wrote: “Nowadays there are children who come to the synagogue . . . [and] profane the sanctity of the house of our God. . . . [T]his one laughs and that one cries, this one talks and that one shouts. . . . The [result] . . . is that because of their stupid noise, the worshipers lose all concentration, and [God’s] name is profaned.”

Thankfully, we do not have problems of this magnitude here at Temple Beth-El. And yet, there are those who suggest that a “kid-friendly” congregation is one in which children are not told to “shush,” or encouraged to go to the sitter. I fear the consequences of being “kid-friendly” to such an extreme, as did Rabbi Menachem of old. If we did not insist on some level of decorum, our Jewish worship would lose its meaning and appeal to many adults. Worse still, if adults do not take worship seriously enough to insist on sanctity in the synagogue, then children will grow up believing that worship is not meant for serious adults. The very children whom we hope to attract to Judaism will eventually be turned off.

Here at Temple Beth-El, we try to make our Sabbath evening services “kid-friendly” in a more appropriate way. We provide child care services to an extent that is unheard of in most congregations. We never charge for this service, and it is always available.

We also invite children to come onto the bimah for the kiddush, which usually takes place about thirty minutes after services begin. This ritual highlights those children who are ready to participate appropriately in adult worship. After the kiddush, younger children go to be with the sitter, while the older ones remain with us through the end of the service. We are so proud of the many young people who participate fully in our worship services, and we hope that they are pleased with themselves.

Back in the late sixteenth century, Rabbi Menachem felt the same way. He wrote: “Somewhat older children . . . should be brought to the synagogue. They should be taught and encouraged to [participate in the prayers]. They should not be allowed to chatter, and they should be taught how to sit with awe and respect. This is how those who bring them may attain reward.”

From time to time, we know, children will need to whisper a question to a parent, or will become a bit restless, and may even need to go out to the restroom more frequently than may truly be necessary. The rest of us should be tolerant of such minor annoyances. Certainly, we want to give children a chance to behave appropriately, and not simply assume that all children will misbehave. In fact, we are especially proud of these kids, and should go out of our way to congratulate those children and their parents. Indeed, these children are the future of Judaism.

Next week, we shall conclude our annual reading of the Book of Genesis with the story of Jacob’s death in Egypt. There is a wonderful midrash about the passing of that patriarch, who was also known by the name of our people, Israel. Jacob feared that Judaism would die with him. On his death bed, he was reassured by his children, who were, by then, adults. Shema Yisrael, they said, “Listen up Dad, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” Then did Jacob respond: “Having heard my children proclaim God’s oneness, I know that Baruch Shem kevod, God’s glorious Kingdom will be blessed, forever and ever.”

May we, like our mothers and fathers of old, know the pleasure of hearing our children proclaim God’s oneness by our side. May they learn from us, as the children of Israel learned from Leah, Rachel and Jacob, to praise God, not only when they are children, but also when they grow up. Then may the worship of God continue, forever and ever.