The children-in-shule dilemma

Coming to shule on Shabbat is a different experience to coming to shule on a weekday. It’s a family affair: for many people, the entire family comes – Mum, Dad and the kids. Every Jewish parent knows, if you want you children to grow up with a strong affiliation for shule, it’s ideal to start bringing them while they’re young.

Bringing your kids to shule, when they’re young, is a great way to encourage them in an environment that’s rich in Torah, where they can take advantage of resources many of us don’t have at home. More learned scholars to look up to, books to read and of course, the entire Shabbat service itself.

Of course, for younger children (I’m talking low primary and below, here), asking them to sit still and be quite for 3 hours is a little bit on the unrealistic side (a two year old cannot sit still for 2 minutes  let alone 2 hours) – and here’s where we have something of a dilemma.  Mutually competing goals, if you will – at least from a communal perspective.

As a community, we dearly hope (and quite rightly) that the next generation of yidden will follow in the path of our forefathers. We want our kids to grow up shomrei shabbat, kosher, tznuit and proud to be Jewish. As a community, however, people expect, and quite rightly, to be able to daven in peace in our houses of worship.

Unfortunately, small children are not exactly synonymous with “peace and quite” – however the absence of these children means that they will lose this opportunity to connect to their heritage and halacha at a young age – and also that other family members, often the mothers, run the risk of themselves being cut off from their right to engage in a communal expression of their cultural and spiritual heritage and their community at large. This can run the risk of a flow on effect, in which the mothers (who according to Talmud set the tone of the yiddishkeit of the household) become alienated from Judaism, themselves. At the very least, it adds to their burden and in a small community, like ours, this is amplified even more.

Sadly, in some shules in the Perth region, there is a subtle but clear message of “un-welcomeness” for younger children. Parents of children are encouraged to attend shule (as they should be), however their children, who in many cases are far, far to young to be left unattended, appear to be encouraged to remain outside. Were children of this age to be left similarly unattended in a day-care or school environment, it’s reasonable to expect that the same people would be outraged.

The Talmud teaches us that we should continue to daven even if a snake were to wrap itself around our legs, yet for many, it seems, a single noise from a baby is enough to illicit an unbelievably high level of emotion. I’m not suggesting a shule should be a playground (far from it) – but perhaps shule goers could learn to accept a small amount of noise from babies before their mothers literally run from the room, with a look of near terror on their face. Sadly, this is not an exaggeration.

The net result of this is that those parents who chose to mind their own children wind up minding a much larger group of children, in a case of childcare by default. This results in an ever increasing level of unruliness amongst  the kids who are not with their parents, increasing noise levels and dissatisfaction amongst those stuck doing the daycare.

So do we have only two choices available to us? Stop bringing kids to shule and isolate the mothers and children on one hand and high levels of noise plus “shule goer dissatisfaction” on the other?

Actually, no – there’s a third choice, in which people are encouraged to take a different approach to the way their children behave at shule and the community adapts to be more tolerant of people in other situations to theirs. This means, if kids are not old enough to be left alone, then they’re not. If kids can be left alone but are making noise, their parents stop them making noise, even if it means going outside to do it (and if it keeps happening, then revert to the previous rule because they’re clearly not old enough to be left alone). And if they’re old enough to daven, they’re davening. This might mean parents taking turns with their kids, so the other can daven or it might mean forming groups of children to learn under a (willing & capable) supervisor. We don’t expect Carmel school to force grade 1 students to sit quietly in a chair for 3 hours, listening and we don’t expect Carmel school to let our kids run free all day – no, we expect them learn in the way that their age is capable of learning at. So why should our expectations be so different at shule?

If we are to have a generation for tomorrow, we need to put up with some of the communal growing pains that come along with it – even if you’ve “already done your time” and your kids are older. Someone once put up with your kids and one day, your grandchildren will, please G-d, be making that noise.

A shule needs to be a welcoming place to children and their parents, as well as people without young children, at the same time. No one expects a shule to put up with noise during any part of the service – but neither should it be expected to be akin to an aged home, either. To learn in an environment, children need to feel welcome in it. Similarly, children don’t want to learn in a playground – they want to play. You can’t reasonably expect a kid to come to shule and completely ignore the service and all the “goings on” and then get dragged in to sit in front of a book and not complain. Anyone who’s had children can tell you that is a plan destined to fail – the kid has to be at least partially engaged before hand. You wouldn’t take your kid to the park to do maths homework, so making the shule feel like a park isn’t going to lead to sitting and learning.

The most reasonable way forward would seem to be an environment more tolerant of children who are making their best effort to behave, inside the shule, for as long as they can reasonably manage. Kids who are unruly or simply too young to sit there any longer should of course move outside (with supervision – and yes, this might mean that Dad has to go outside for a while), so as not to bother those davening. However those davening need to allow younger kids a chance to engage by letting the odd noise go, without expecting the kid to leave at the first hint of their mouth opening.

We’re not talking a circus and there’s no hard and fast rule for how much is too much – but if you want kids to come to shule and learn to love Torah, you’re going to need to show it to them. Showing them the door will only lead them to walk through it.