There may be a way to ensure that children grow up loving everything Jewish. By not “making” our children love it. Instead, by doing what comes naturally.
My husband and I go to temple services because we enjoy them, and we bring along our 2-year-old son when we can. Based on our experience this past Friday, Simon already has an infatuation with temple services, whether it’s a regular service or Tot Shabbat.
Last Friday, he sat on our laps, tapping his knees with the music and frequently singing the last few words of prayers. He eagerly shouted out, “men, men,” upon hearing the congregation say “Amen,” a few times. He grew fidgety when there was more talk than music, and my husband took him out for a break during the rabbi’s sermon. He returned about 10 minutes later for the Aleinu and the opening of the ark, activities children are invited to participate in at our temple. Simon has taken part before, but always has held our hands or insisted on being carried. This time, he surprised us.
Our senior rabbi called up all children, and Simon walked away from us toward the front of the sanctuary. He reached the front row, then froze and turned around to look at us. The rabbi walked toward Simon and extended a hand. “It’s ok, Simon. You can come up with me,” he said. Simon took the rabbi’s hand, and together, the toddler and the rabbi, who’s at least 6 feet tall, walked up the steps to the bima.
My husband and I, who had been sitting at the back for most of the service, sat near the front, figuring Simon might bolt toward us at some point. But he stayed up there next to the rabbi, the associate rabbi, and a few others. I could not see Simon’s face, but the rabbis did and reported back after the service. When the ark was opened, Simon gazed in a look of wonderment.
I knew that look. Simon first experienced the opening of the ark as a four-month-old. His eyes widened even then. It’s impossible to interpret what a toddler is thinking when he sees Torahs on display. He might have been entranced by the shiny silver adornments for the Torahs. He might have been awestruck by the sound of live music and prayer so close to his ears.
Many Jewish parents fret that their children will grow up hating anything to do with religion. Sunday school? Yuck. Friday night services. Double yuck. A mother of two older boys commented to me that we were wise to take our child to services now. Start too late, she said, and our son likely would balk at going. Neither my husband nor I had exposure to Shabbat services during childhood. Sunday school was my Jewish experience as a youth, and it left a sour taste in my mouth. I equated Judaism to boredom. I only began to treasure my faith in my 30s when I began singing in temple choirs.
I cannot predict how long Simon’s affection for temple will last. What is clear now: He is comfortable in his family’s house of worship, comfortable enough to walk away from his parents and take the rabbi’s hand.