Sitting in Shul with Kids

There is a custom that one should not speak between the Shofar blasts sounded on Rosh Hashanah at the conclusion of the Torah service and those sounded at the end of Musaf. It is a tradition that dates back at least to the tenth century and is quoted throughout medieval halakhic responsa. The rabbis explain that since a major purpose of sounding the shofar is to focus our minds on our prayers, we are supposed to remain in a state of heightened concentration throughout the full duration of the shofar blasts. I have known about this custom for a long time, but this year, for the first time since becoming a mother, I was able to observe it.

Ever since my children were born, I have been trying to train them to sit quietly in shul. I was blessed with easy births, and so I was able to bring each of my babies with me to shul the first Shabbat after they were born. In infancy each baby nestled in a carrier, feeling the rise and fall of my chest as my voice burst forth in song and prayer. When they got older I began bringing one child up to the Bimah with me each time I read from the Torah; they stood on a chair at my side and peered over my shoulder as I tracked the words with a silver Yad. Sometimes I worried that the child at my side would distract or interrupt my concentration, but then I would think of the verse from Parshat Nitzavim, ki karov elecha hadavar meod (“for this thing is very close to you”), and I would hope that I was teaching them what it means for Torah to feel close and accessible.

My oldest is now eight and my youngest is three, and I am constantly on the lookout for ways to keep them occupied in shul. I bring them books with interesting pictures so that they want to flip through the pages again and again, such as Peter Spier’s People and Karla Kuskin’s The Philharmonic Gets Dressed. I pack games that are compact, easy to clean up, and can be played silently on the floor, such as Double, Plus Plus and—created exclusively for this purpose — Magnetic Shul. And then I have my stash of snacks that can be chewed silently and consumed slowly without making too many crumbs; some of them are, admittedly, less nutritious than others. My children know that candy is off limits except in shul – last week my daughter pleaded with me to buy her sour sticks, and I gave in on the condition that we save them to be eaten only in synagogue. Each Shabbat morning they get one lollipop (two if they stay for Shacharit and Musaf!), and as they know well, the rule is that the lollipop must be entirely consumed in the sanctuary. It reminds me of the laws surrounding Maaser Sheni, the tithed produce that had to be eaten only in Jerusalem; the walls of Jerusalem had to “absorb” the tithe, and once they did, the produce could not exit the city. My children know that if they leave to go to the bathroom or play with friends, they have to deposit their lollipop with me. I make sure to keep the wrappers handy just in case.

I am aware that it all sounds a bit crazy and over-zealous. Why am I so intent on keeping my kids in shul with me, especially if they are not even paying attention to the prayer service? Why not just take them to the children’s service for a half hour and then let them run around outside, as most of my friends opt to do? What is to be gained by having my children sit at my feet for a couple of hours every Shabbat morning, sucking on lollipops and flipping through picture books?

I harbor no illusions. My kids are not learning to pray by sitting in shul. Even if I bring an illustrated kids’ prayer book, they rarely open it, preferring the other distractions in my bag of tricks. But I hope that with time, after weeks and weeks of sitting at my feet for the several hours of Shabbat morning davening, they will begin to absorb the rhythms of the service. “Malachim!” I whisper to them when they try to talk to me during the Kedusha, the prayer where we stand with our feet pressed together in imitation of the angels and mimic the call-and-response among the celestial beings as they seek out God’s presence. My children know that it is forbidden to talk during this “Angels” prayer, and sometimes they even press their feet together and rise up on their tiptoes and bow to the left and right alongside me, as if they too might transcend their sticky-candy-eating embodiment and rise to the level of angels. “Torah!” I tell them quietly at the end of the Torah reading, when the open, sacred parchment scroll is lifted high for congregation to see. Sometimes my children look up from their game, or come with me to kiss the Torah as it is paraded down the aisles. “Kohanim!” I murmur when the priests walk to the front of the sanctuary and stand beneath their tallitot to bless the congregation. Although it is forbidden to look at the priests as they recite their blessing, I am grateful for anything that catches my children’s eyes, and I don’t have the heart to tell them to avert their glance.

Since my Israeli-born children converse in the same language that we pray, the liturgy is more accessible to them than it ever was to me as a child. My three-year-old recently told me that Ein Keloheinu is her favorite prayer. It soon became apparent that she mistook the line “Mi K’Eloheinu”—who is like our God—for a reference to her friend in preschool and told me excitedly, “I have a Mika in my Gan!” (The irony is not lost on me.) Two of my girls, Tagel and Shalva, know to listen for their names at certain points in the service – whenever Tagel’s name appears in a haftarah reading, I make sure she listens up and takes pride in her cameo appearance. We were recently sitting next to my friend Efrat and her daughter Tehilla, a name that appears throughout the liturgy. When both our daughters’ names were mentioned in the span of a few verses of the haftarah for Nitzavim, I looked over at Efrat and whispered, “I guess this is a lot more exciting for us than it is for you.”

I don’t know if my kids will eventually consider the synagogue a home. When they are old enough to make their own decisions, will they choose to spend their Shabbat mornings praying as part of a congregation? I recognize that these matters are largely beyond my control. Even so, I hope that my husband and I will succeed in raising children who make their Jewish decisions from a place of deep familiarity with our traditions. I hope they will come to know the rhythm of the prayer service even if they ultimately march to the beat of a different drummer. Like the Talmudic story about the heretic Elisha ben Abuya, whose feet still counted out the distance that one may walk on Shabbat even after he had thrown off the yoke of the commandments, I hope that my children will always be able to name the weekly Torah portion even if they don’t go to synagogue to hear it.

Most of all, I hope my children will have learned from sitting beside their parents in shul how important prayer is to both of us. I suppose that’s why I care so deeply about my kids sitting in shul, even if my son is tearing through a mystery novel and my daughters are busy devouring sweets. One of my most powerful childhood memories is of watching my father wrap tefillin at a hotel in Disney World. He was a congregational rabbi for forty years and attended a daily minyan, where his presence was expected. When we were on vacation, no one demanded that he pray. And yet he prayed even in Disney World, which taught me that prayer was not merely part of his job description, but a duty of the heart. When my kids ask for a drink of water in the middle of the silent Amidah prayer and I hold up a finger sternly for them to wait, I am trying to impart the same message.

On Rosh Hashanah I had to hold up that finger many times. I managed to sit quietly in shul throughout all the Shofar blasts not because I banished my children from the sanctuary but because they sat there alongside me for much of the service, nibbling on rice cakes and brushing their dolls’ hair. My son, who attended an earlier (5:30am!) service with my husband Daniel, sat beside him reading a novel; when their service ended, he came to retrieve his sisters, so that they could go home with their father. For the last hour and a half, I sat in shul alone. I relished the quiet, but each time the Shofar was sounded, I thought of how its blasts resembled the inarticulate prayers of those who cannot access language – whether because their depths of emotion are too great for words, or because they, like my children, have simply not yet learned how to pray. Maybe by next Rosh Hashanah my son will open the prayer book and follow along, and maybe my daughters will not need quite so many lollipops. The shofar is supposed to sound like a wail or a sob, but this past Rosh Hashanah, it sounded to me like the voice of hope.

5 thoughts on “Sitting in Shul with Kids

  1. Sharon Citron Urbas says:

    Lovely Ilana,
    I wish I had your bag of tricks when my children were little. Often the rabbi said will that mother take that noisy child out

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  2. Caroline Goldstein says:

    Thank you so much for this Ilana. I struggled to justify to myself why it matters to me so much that my daughters stay in the service, rather than running around outside with most of the other kids. It’s so good to see you put it into words.

    I thought you might like to know about our local solution to this: another mum and I (she is a Chazzanit and I run the Masorti minyan at our pluralist shul) created a kids’ space in the service, to send out the message that not only do we welcome children in our service, but this is where they belong. We put down play mats and provide quiet toys and games plus a selection of seasonal books. The space is not tucked out of the way, at the back of the room. It is in the front, to the right of the Aron HaKodesh, taking up about a quarter of the floor space. Now my 8 & 5 year old girls stay in for most of the service, the 5 year old loves opening the ark and they both do Gelila – participating as they wouldn’t have had the chance to do had they been playing in the creche area. They also seem to be absorbing some of the nussach. Other children come to our minyan even if their families don’t usually attend Masorti services and we have no problem with noise as they generally regulate themselves. Plus, I can mostly concentrate on my davening, instead of leaving with a bored child halfway through Shacharit!

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  3. Ilana Ruskay-Kidd says:

    Thank you for sharing this piece. I too always wanted my kids sitting next to me. I felt blessed to have kids who mostly sat and agree that while they may not connect more deeply to prayer through this experience, for me I always felt a sense of completion having the world of up high with the world here down below with me as I prayed. Perhaps it was selfish but it always meant a lot to me. This year I have two girls away in college and boy do I miss having them by my side! Enjoy this stage and I Hope you will have many times together and also some quiet time alone just for you in the year ahead. Shana tova

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  4. Aaron Koller says:

    This is beautiful. I love the point about Elisha ben Avuya – still counting, intuitively, after having thrown it all away.

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  5. Tamar Orvell says:

    Thank you, again, for another post that lingers in my thoughts. On Elisha ben Avuya, his counting Daled Amot intrigued me. Why? How do you understand his action? Was it rote, habit? That though he had become a heretic, something pulled at his deepest core? Not everything but something(s)? I’d appreciate your (or other commenters) thoughts. References, too, if available. שנה טובה to a wonderful teacher, writer, mother, mentor.

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