by Jeffrey K. Salkin
t was Shavuot morning. A young woman was delivering her confirmation address from the bimah on the lessons of the Holocaust when a toddler began to howl--unceasingly. People in the pews began fidgeting in discomfort. Finally, the father of another confirmand approached the toddler's parents and politely suggested they take the child out of the sanctuary. "My child is here for his cousin's confirmation!" the mother replied indignantly. "He has a right to be here!" The confirmand's right to be heard had been trumped by a coddled two-year-old's right to a temple tantrum.
This problem is by no means new. One late medieval text complains about children's public behavior, including tales of young children urinating in the corners of synagogues! Things were apparently so bad that our liturgy includes a special Mi Sheberach blessing composed by Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Ha-Levi Heller of Moravia (1579-1654) in honor of those who don't talk in synagogue. "May the One who blessed our ancestors... bless all who guard their mouths and tongues and do not speak during the time of prayer." The good rabbi wasn't just addressing children; he was talking about adult behavior as well. He would have sadly recognized the contemporary synagogue--congregants noisily shuffling in late, cell phones ringing, people whispering to one another rather than participating in the service.
Yet the fact that our ancestors confronted these challenges doesn't grant the green light to those folks who prefer to "let it all hang out" at the expense of everyone else. It is not okay to treat the sanctuary as a stadium or a movie theater. It is not okay for our synagogues to operate like "kinderarchies," where kids' desires rule us. It is not okay for parents to look the other way whenever their children act out. And it is not okay for us to excuse such behavior with the lame rationalization: "At least they come to synagogue."
No, I am not suggesting that parents and children sit rigidly in the pews like the "frozen chosen." There is already too much of that. But we can take some concrete steps to involve our children, in particular, and still maintain the sanctity of our worship. In my last congregation I placed a few dozen Jewish children's books in a bin at the back of the sanctuary and suggested that kids and their parents help themselves whenever the spirit moved them. The kids loved it and the parents were grateful. Some congregations conduct a parallel worship experience for young children, who then rejoin their parents at an appropriate time. Others have followed the lead of churches, designating a "crying room" for parents and small children in which parents and kids can see and hear the service through a one-way window and audio monitors, but cannot be seen or heard.
We Reform Jews want spirituality in our worship. But spirituality requires kedusha, holiness. In a pointed and loving way, Jewish leaders, both lay and professional, must teach congregants how to be part of a worshiping community. It means saying: "In order for us to worship as a holy community in the presence of God, please read along with the service, sing along with the music, remain in the sanctuary during the Torah reading, turn off cell phones and beepers, and do not allow your children to disrupt the service."
To restore decorum, we can't just treat the symptoms. We have to look at the whole system of worship. The more participation, the better the flow of our liturgy, the more joyful our music--the more everyone will be involved and invested in being part of a covenantal community.
At the outdoor sanctuary at UAHC Eisner Camp-Institute, a sign reads: "Quiet please....prayers rising." Maybe the kids will lead us, after all.
Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is spiritual leader of The Temple in Atlanta, Georgia.
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