Children In Shul

A child's haven?

One of the curiosities of Anglo-Jewish synagogues is their members’ ambivalent attitude towards children. It is common for synagogue regulars to bemoan the dearth of small children in the Shul, worried that their absence indicates the imminent demise of their community. Yet when they attend, and worse still, behave as normal children, the regulars tut and grumble that they are too noisy! This is partially a British phenomenon: many restaurants in this country are unwelcoming to children, family tickets at attractions are absurdly expensive and baby-buggies often won’t fit through shop entrances. Yet since it is obvious that the presence of children is a sine qua non for a healthy community, the issue of children’s involvement in Shul life is worth exploring.

The United Synagogue in which I grew up, in common with most similar Shuls, ran a children’s service, which I thought was rather good. Almost none of the children who attended went to Jewish schools, so learning the prayers and songs in a structured atmosphere was the thing to do. In retrospect, there was another reason for this format – the main goal of the children’s service was to train the young participants for a life of adult Shul attendance. We dare not trivialise the need to raise children who will be comfortable with synagogue services and possibly even able to run them, yet it seems to me that times have changed, but in many places, children’s services have not.

It is to our collective credit that a much higher proportion of children from the mainstream community now attend Jewish primary schools, where they receive a daily dose of tefillah in some kind of structured atmosphere. Since davening and school go hand-in-hand, attending a regular Shabbat children’s service smells suspiciously like school on a Saturday, a major disincentive to attendance. Add to this the hardly controversial observation that while some (like me) were drawn in to synagogue life by the formal children’s service, the proportion of those who have scarcely attended Shul since childhood is alarmingly high. Put another way, the old-model children’s service did not produce a generation of Shul-able (or even Shul-going) adults. Were that the case, today our Shuls would be overrun; sadly, bar a few notable exceptions, they are not.

It is clearly necessary for children to be occupied with some age-appropriate activity, for while some will want to sit with their parents, many will quickly become bored in the Shul, and others may come without adults at all. Yet I don’t think that the Shul should be a childfree zone – some kind of balance between attending the adult service and a junior programme seems appropriate.

To my mind, the purpose of children’s programming is to enable the kids to have a really great time while on the Shul premises, while to some degree expanding their knowledge and love of Judaism. I feel that the formal service should be abandoned in favour of fun learning, including quizzes, drama and games, all with an educational bent, focused on the weekly portion, the season or a challenging issue from a Jewish perspective. There will, of course, be some Shabbat tefillah, but the overall content and style of the event should be as different as possible from that of the children’s regular school day. If at all possible, several smaller, age-appropriate groups should replace a single service – how can one provide an engaging experience for an eleven-year-old and a four-year-old together? And to give it the right feel, I think that the term ‘service’ should be abandoned in favour of ‘programme’ or similar.

I want the children to leave Shul happy and exhilarated, having had a chance to spend time with their friends, run about to release some energy, learn something new and have a great time. Let them be sorry that the programme has finished for that week and full of anticipation for the next one – in short, Shul needs to be turned into a place that children see as fun and cool, to which they will want to bring their friends. It’s true that they will make lots of noise and won’t spend more than a short while davening, but does that really matter? Give them positive experiences as children and they are much more likely to come back as adults. Childhood moments are formative – a good experience now will probably lead to proper involvement later.

It goes without saying that these programmes must be run professionally – modern children are experts at complaining if things aren’t quite up to scratch! There should be prizes and attendance incentives, as well as that old Jewish favourite, food.

I appreciate that this model won’t suit all communities – in some, a lower proportion of children attend Jewish primary schools, and so a more tefillah-focused content may be appropriate. In others, it may be very hard to identify suitable madrichim who are young, dynamic and capable of imparting a love of Judaism to their charges. In still others, the small number of children may not allow the division of the programme into several groups.

Yet in principal, the central need is to change focus– by giving children a true children’s experience, they will want to keep coming back to Shul – as children, youth and then later as excited adults.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.