Trust, Welcome Parents Who Bring Tots to Temple

The notion made my skin crawl. Woo parents of tiny children to temple services, then stick them behind a glass wall. Then, we can watch the service without worrying about disrupting the proceedings.

The idea, touted by a participant this week at a conference about reaching out to Jewish families, was well-meaning, but showed a lack of trust in parents. Most of us are considerate enough to take a baby or toddler out of the sanctuary if wailing or whining starts. As Jews, we should roll out the welcome mat for young families, whether they show up for a regular service or Tot Shabbat.

Connecting to a house of worship is particularly tough when you have an infant or toddler, and young families often avoid joining temples because of the cost and because of their uncertainty about how a congregation would accommodate their needs. On Wednesday, I attended a symposium about engaging families with young children in Judaism and our community; the Union of Reform Judaism’s Outreach Training Institute in Boston ran the event. Parent panelists spoke about what worked for them, including Jewish education programs for parents that provided babysitting, connections they made with families at Jewish preschools, and a rabbi who took time after services to explain the nuts and bolts about the Torah to a curious little boy.

My husband and I have been an unusual sight at Shabbat services because our toddler Simon is often with us, temple clergy tell us. Most parents – if they happen to belong to a congregation – shy away from bringing babies or toddlers to services unless they are billed as a Tot Shabbat. Our rabbis at Temple Isaiah in Lexington make it clear they like to see families at services, regardless of the child’s age. They think it’s important to make temple – as well as Jewish ritual at home – a part of a child’s life from the beginning.

Does our son become disruptive? Yes, and when he begins to wail or whine too loudly or try to wriggle out of our arms, out he goes. Usually, the wriggling happens right before the rabbi’s sermon. One of us takes him out and lets him stretch his legs, then brings him back for the aleinu. He often joins the few other children there to help open the ark. We take him to the monthly Tot Shabbats more often than regular services, but in the summer, there are no Tot Shabbats. Regular service times change from 8 p.m. to 6:15 p.m., a time he generally can handle. So we bring him along. We enjoy marking Shabbat at home, but we also like to connect to our bigger Jewish community.

My post today is about a small slice of a large issue: how to make families with young children feel as connected as everyone else to a Jewish congregation. My husband and I are not daunted by the lack of other families with toddlers at regular services we attend, but certainly would love to see other families there with children our son’s age.

I admired how far our senior rabbi recently went to make a grandmother and her 10-month-old granddaughter feel welcome. The pair came to the Shavuot morning Yizkor service. Any time the baby cooed, the grandmother quickly took her out. The rabbi urged her to stay, noting that we need to see young children at services and that signs of joy during a memorial service are not inappropriate. Children are, he noted, a part of life and our future. L’dor v’dor. From generation to generation. Let’s avoid putting up glass partitions in our temples. Keep the doors wide open to all of us.

Addendum: The organizer of this week’s symposium mentioned how one temple offers story time in its library during the d’var Torah on Saturday morning services. Our temple sometimes offers babysitting at early evening services. Let’s get a conversation going. What has worked at your temple to help young families and their children feel more at home?

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