There is a debate going on in my Orthodox Jewish circles: Should children come to shul?
As an exhausted working mother of a 3-year-old and 20-month-old, shul is my weekly refuge, which means I only go to shuls that welcome in children. For two hours every Shabbat morning, I get to take a lovely walk with my husband and children, which we never get to do during the week. Then, I drop my kids at the childcare program while I go into shul, daven, read that week’s Torah portion and listen to the rabbi’s speech. Even if my children come in to find me once or twice, I still get some time on my own to connect with Hashem. During kiddush, I get to chat with friends and eat delicious food, and my kids do too. I’m proud to report that cholent is one of their favorite foods.
My children have been going to shul since they were newborns. I rarely miss going on Shabbat morning. Aside from the fact that I enjoy it, shul was a lifeline for me after I suffered from postpartum depression following the birth of both of my children. Much of the time, I felt isolated, lonely and anxious. When I went to shul, I could talk to other moms (not during davening or Torah reading, of course) and feel less alone in my struggles. Having time to talk with other adults and hear inspirational speeches from my rabbi was critical to preserving my mental health during this very fragile time in my life.
There are some people who believe that children interrupt davening and that they should stay at home; thus, the moms would have to stay home, too, unless they have a nanny. That is cost-prohibitive and out of the question for most people.
On the other hand, the rabbi of one of the Orthodox shuls I attend once forbade his members from shushing the children. He said it would discourage children from wanting to come to shul, which could negatively impact their observance.
I love that perspective. Of course, if a child is being so disruptive that other people can’t concentrate on prayer, their parent needs to lovingly take them back to childcare and sit with them for a few minutes until they calm down. But cultivating an environment where everyone has to be completely silent, and people turn around and look at you if your baby coos or your child talks a little too loudly is not family-friendly or welcoming to children and parents. How are we supposed to pass down Judaism to the next generation if they don’t feel at home in shul?
I believe that every shul should do what they can to bring in children, which translates to having childcare during Shabbat morning services. If babysitters aren’t able to change diapers, then a separate room could be created for women with babies. Whatever it takes, shuls must take proactive steps to encourage children to come.
When I brought my first child home from the hospital, it was Sukkot, and my husband and I had a communal gathering in our sukkah with our 2-day-old baby in tow. I showed her right away how important Judaism is to our family. At this point, she has been coming to shul with me for more than three years. She eagerly asks us every week if we are going to shul and when we can see the rabbi. My two daughters have a blast there. Shabbat is a special day they look forward to, and going to shul is a huge part of it.
So, should children come to shul? Absolutely. They should be welcomed with open arms, made to feel like part of the community and be given the opportunity to learn about, and fall in love with, Judaism.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.