Saturday, September 22, 2012

The presence of kids in shul

From 613 Torah Ave, Vayeilech:
A boy breaks a jar of marmalade. Strangers make nasty remarks:
-Small children do not belong in stores!

-Excuse me, sir, I do not mean to show disrespect,
But tell me, how do you expect,
A child to learn to get on along,
If are you always keeping them at home?

-Yes, you must take him out each day
And show him what's the proper way
He may, indeed, make some mistakes,
And you will pay for the mess he makes
But in raising a child, that's what it takes.

-We learn this lesson, without fail,
From the special mitzvah of Hakhel

(A quick background: the mitzvah of Hakhel involved gathering up the entire nation once every seven years for the king to read parts of the Torah. The explicitly mentioned parties are men, women, small children and converts.)

The song can be found here.

I did not grow up with 613 Torah Ave tapes, so we are discovering them together. Not every single piece is meaningful or well-thought-out, but this particular part resonates strongly with me. It is hard to grocery shop with kids. It is hard taking them all to the post office, or the cleaner's or any other store. The errand is not efficient, and things are bound to get ruined. You are bound to get some dirty looks and remarks. But that's what it takes. Rashi comments that the reason the small children were brought to Hakhel was to give reward to their parents. So, it was not for them to learn Torah, or to listen to it, but for their parents to show that Torah is so precious to them, that they will drop everything, inconvenience themselves, and bring their kids. Something tells me that national gathering was not quiet and produced quite a few gray hairs in parents.

What if the Torah placed decorum over the importance of the learning experience?

I am well into Shmuel I in my Nach Yomi. In the first perek, it talks about how Elkanah would go up to Shiloh once a year and bring his family with him. Abarbanel comments that he brought "even his young children in order to inculcate them with the pure fear of G-d that would come from the atmosphere and service at the holy place, and so that the presence of the entire family would increase the joy of the festival observances". Unless children were different in those days, I strongly doubt that it was an easy undertaking. After all, Elkanah was a wealthy individual, couldn't he leave the children with the nannies at home? Couldn't he leave the wives at home, as well? Women do not have an obligation to pray, and he was the one bringing korbanot on their behalf. However, apparently there was a learning experience there not to be missed. Maybe when Chana saw what Penina's children were gaining from exposure to the Mishkan, she got an additional motivation to pray for a child. After all, the essence of our prayer is based on Chana's prayer, the prayer of one who had no obligation to pray.

Where am I going with all this?

I believe the above sources corroborate two points:
1. Children belong in shul and are expected to become the members of the community from an early age.
2. The prayer of women should be encouraged.

These two points are closely related to one another, especially in the modern setting of a shul. If women (of any age) are encouraged to come to shul to daven, they will be bringing children to shul. If the shul provides an atmosphere which encourages women to bring their children to shul, the children get to learn by observing and participating in davening, and the mothers can get a chance to daven. If the children feel valued as members of a congregation, performing such functions as holding doors, opening and closing the aron, changing page numbers, setting up and cleaning up kiddush, let alone singing Adon Olam, they are more likely to look forward to growing up and joining the congregation in prayer.

Too often, a shul places decorum over the needs of its congregation. A place full of decorum most likely has fidgety adults as well, same fidgety adults who hush the mothers who dare bring their kids in. The mothers do not feel welcome, and so they leave. The kids are discouraged from being inside: after all, how long can a child sit still in a place where he has no function? He has two paths: either learn the grown-up language and outperform them (for example, by extending Amens longer than anyone else), or drop out. Then we have a crisis of kids leaving the fold. And how many Chanahs never get a chance at a heart-felt prayer?

I will finish with three anecdotes, all showing how decorum has nothing to do with kavanah.

I attended a bar-mitzvah in Richmond, VA, right before Rosh HaShana. The shul there does not have a ton of kids, but a boy went up on Friday night to sing Yigdal. He marched up, was draped in a tallis and then belted out... Adon Olam! There was a pause, he was corrected, caught his place, and then continued, with the congregation joining in. He made a mistake, but he learned a most valuable lesson: his service is valued, and when he stumbles, there is a community which will correct him and set him on his way.

What if the boy was booed instead, or not allowed to say Yigdal at all?

During Shabbos day, right as bar-mitzcah speeches were starting, Mr. Griff, the gabbai, motioned that he has something to add. Now Mr. Griff is old-school, he is all for proper decorum. He is imposing, and he looks just, as his name sounds: someone who very clearly indicates what flies in his shul and what doesn't. I do not know how many rabbis he saw come and go, but he runs the place. What Mr. Griff had to say was surprising to me: he spoke how the bar-mitzvah boy, while being a wee one, would go up with his father to open the aron, holding on tightly to his father's hand. Then, when he got older, and realized that Mr. Griff will not eat him, he would wait for his cue, and go up on his own. And look at him now, reading his parsha!

What if Mr. Griff did not tolerate little boys on the dais, never welcoming them up?

The most personally inspiring davening of recent memory happened on our trip to Israel. On Shabbos morning, we were brought to a fairly standard Israeli shul. I had to rummage for nusach Ashekanz siddur, the mechiza was a white curtain, and the davening was moving at a brisk pace. But there was an incredible kavanah (intent) in the room. When the congregation recited the prayer for the Israeli soldiers, they inserted the names of the kids from that shul who are serving. When they mentioned Tzion and Yerushalayim, it was not an abstraction standing in the way of kiddush, but a real place, so close to their hearts. When the baal koreh read from the Torah with a kid draped over his shoulder, nobody flinched. Nobody flinched, either, when he took that kid to the restroom, and another person took his place for one aliyah. There were some women in shul, and some kids. There was no pomposity, just an earnest expression of a congregation.

Isn't that what tefila is supposed to be about? 


  1. I have found that there is a trick to taking kids to shul. If parents think that they can bring their 2-year-old around Torah-reading time until the end of the davening and expect him/her to sit quietly, they are delusional! Throwing an occasional shhh! at the child is never helpful. The best plan is to bring the child for the first time fifteen minutes before the end. Every little while, back the time up, adding another fifteen minutes as the child seems ready. I didn't bring my children to the whole service until they were around 10 or 11 years old. I didn't put them in babysitting either, because I would rather them associate shul with a place to daven and bring them when they are able to sit in shul.

  2. I bring my kids. If we get there before the playrooms open, I take them up with me and hand each a siddur (They are 4 and 5.5). My older child davens whet we have learned together. My younger one flips around in the siddur a little bit, but again, she's a newly-minted 4. When we went on Rosh Hashanah for the shofar blowing, I made sure each of them had a machzor that was opened to the right page. We left right afterwards. They were quiet, but I didn't want to take any chances.