Bringing Kids to Services

Each month I prepare to write my article for the Kol Sholom.  The other day, my husband, Matt, said, “I have your article for the next month’s Kol Sholom.”  And he made the offer that much sweeter when he said, “I’m going to write it for you!”  Wow, now that’s a wonderful husband!  People ask, ‘what does one call the husband of a rabbi?’ The answer, ‘Lucky!’  And, yes, I am very lucky to have an incredible husband who supports me, but also is an amazing Aba (Dad) who teaches our children why it’s so cool to come to shul.

Often, people will say to me, “Rabbi, we don’t come to services because our kids just can’t make it through the service.”  As a parent of two small children who have been coming to Shabbat services since they were born, I say to parents, “your children will not learn how to get through services if you don’t bring them.”  This is the best way for all of us, children of all ages, to learn the service order, the music so we can sing along, and the customs and traditions of our congregational family.  If we don’t come regularly, then the service will be as foreign to us as someone who sits in an opera with no subtitles or book to tell us what’s going on in the story.  So I invite you, bring your children to services, ANY services –  “family” services or not.  And to assist you, some tools from the “Rebbetz.”

– Rabbi Heidi Cohen

A Rabbi’s Husband’s Guide for bringing children to services

Many people think that bringing children to services is like bringing children to the theater.  In some ways, this is true – we dress our kids up to take them out, make sure they look presentable with hair brushed and no large stains on their shirts, and explain to them that this is a special occasion and that we want them to exercise good behavior.

However unlike going to see a show at the performing arts complex, bringing your children to Temple is a participatory experience.  The kids aren’t required to sit stock-still and silent, rather they are encouraged to sing loud and strong, stand and bow when it is customary, and generally enjoy themselves.

I have heard that many parents feel that their children ‘just can’t sit still’ for services.  I can understand that – but as parents we also have to realize that they are not going to get as much out of the responsive readings as we are, especially if they can’t read…If  your children like to be loud, give them license to sing loudly – you’ll get no complaints from the Rabbi if they don’t get the words exactly right – it’s the spirit that counts.  It’s also important to bring “The Magic Backpack” full of activities. (more on that later)

If they still can’t sit, I’ve had times when I’ve gone back and forth from the sanctuary 4-5 times during a service.  If this is going to be you, make sure you plan ahead – pick a seat on an outside aisle – better to be along the right wall then fight for the back row.  As long as the congregation isn’t standing, or the ark isn’t open, you’re free to take your kids out as often as you need to.

They key is understanding that even a 45 minute service can be difficult for children if they haven’t been exposed to it a lot.  How are you going to offer them a reward of a cookie if they don’t remember the great oneg afterwards?  When my children were young, I would stay in services a little longer each time.  First, we’d stay until the Shema.  Then we’d stay next time until the Amidah.  Then next time we’d stay until the Torah service.  For a while, the Torah service and the Rabbi’s ‘drash’ were the best times to step out (no offense, honey).  All these tips are to encourage your children to come back next time, so let your kids know that your proud of them for sitting nicely so long and that you’ll try longer at the next service.

That’s where ‘The Magic Backpack’ comes in.  When our children are babies, we pack diaper bags, but they don’t just have diapers in them, right?  They have snacks, cloth books, rattles, teething toys, etc.  When my children were younger, I packed a backpack full of toys and things for them to play with that were service-appropriate. If you’re interested, i’m happy to share what i’ve put in my Magic Backpack at the end of this article.

At the same time that we want to make children feel welcomed and accepted in services, we also need to realize that for others, this may be a deeply spiritual time and we don’t have license to disturb that for too long.

While there is no official rules on children making noise in services, I like to think that we each know our children well enough to know if their outburst is going to last for 10 more seconds or 10 more minutes.  If it’s of the former variety, your neighbors will understand for a brief moment while you fish out something else from “The Magic Backpack”.  If it’s of the latter type, you need to be the responsible parent and take your child out of the service.  We understand that you are trying to teach your child that they can’t just cry and get what they want, but services is not the place to enforce that message.

The social hall makes a great ‘running room’ for those kids who just need to run around, but I have found from personal experience that the board room off of the entry foyer has doors that can be closed and is quite soundproof in case our children need to jump and cry and scream.  Make sure to pack a book for yourself in the Magic Backpack– I’ve had a couple occasions where my kids decided to throw tantrums for the rest of services, and I wanted to make sure I had something to occupy myself while I tuned them out.

Ok, so the first time or even first two times might not be the most successful.  But if you come every month to the family services, your children will become accustomed to synagogue decorum and may even look forward to the singing that they can participate in, and the snacks afterwards.  Then you can come for Shir Shabbat and the raucous band, and later they’ll understand how to act when you come for a Yahrzeit or for your own personal time of reflection.

“What is in The Magic Backpack?”

  • Books (ones with lots of pages and pictures that they can flip thru without being read to). For younger kids, fabric books that don’t make noise when they flip thru them quickly.
  • Sticker books w/stickers (not just a book of stickers, but a ‘sticker book’ where they can take stickers out of the one place and put them somewhere else)
  • “Lace-up” cards
  • Crayola Color Wonder markers and paper – this is the markers that only write on the special paper – great for giving to your toddler wearing a white dress. I used to stock up on these when they have sales.
  • Dot-to-dot books for those who can count to 10.
  • Small cars / Action figures – if your child plays quietly with toys (one of mine doesn’t), they can play with them at the seats. Otherwise, bring them to play with in the board room.
  • Dolls / stuffed animals
  • Rubber bands, String, flashcards – hey, kids can find lots of ways to entertain themselves if you just give them something to play with. (And these are all things that I have been glad at one point that I had in the Magic Backback)

It’s important not to let the child look thru the backpack for something themselves – that way you can always have something special hidden for a surprise, or keep some snacks in there that they won’t pull out on their own.

It is also not encouraged to let the kids eat in the sanctuary, but you can go out to the social hall with a snack and then come back in. Good snacks for The Magic Backpack are raisins, goldfish, sealed ‘gummy snacks’ – anything you can throw in one week and then leave in there for the next week when you come back to services.

You’ll find once you come to services more than once every 6 months, the kids will grow to enjoy and handle services much better.

Hope to see you and the kids at services!

-Matt Cohen

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