Do Young Children Belong in Shul? If They Come What Will They See?

In a recent article on Huffington Post, a congregational rabbi wrote:

If you feel the urge to react to the sound a child makes in a sanctuary, please know that you are welcome to walk out until that feeling subsides. Children are cherished parts of our spiritual lives, not distractions from it. Just this morning in the sanctuary of my synagogue, I wept at the cries of a new baby, held in his grandfather’s arms. Those cries (and the ruckus I pray he causes in that same space in years to come) spell out a glorious, vital future for my community and for people of faith. After all, we are only older versions of the children we see. We cry. Why shouldn’t they? They play. Shouldn’t we as well? Those children will, one day, please God, take our places as leaders of faith communities. That is, they will be the next generation of faith leaders unless we inform them that their whole selves aren’t welcome in our sacred spaces.

While thought-provoking and provocative, when I read his words I immediately remembered the counterargument offered by Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l in his book on parenting, Planting and Building (page 62):

We must be careful not to bring our children to synagogue when they are too young. A very young child also has no idea what is going on in synagogue. He is unfamiliar with the prayers, can’t read a Siddur, certainly doesn’t pray, and makes it difficult for others around him to pray. We often see such children roaming around the aisles during prayers…

However, the main problem is not the disturbance in synagogue. Rather, it is the insensitivity we cultivate when we bring these immature children there. A child must appreciate, from the moment his feet cross the threshold, that he or she is in a special place. There should be a feeling of awe there…The longer we delay a child’s first visit to synagogue, the more he or she will understand what transpires there and the more positive will be their long-term feelings for such a place. When a child is brought to synagogue too early, the synagogue becomes his playground. Then it is very difficult to change his attitude and behavior later on, and to imbue him with the proper feeling of awe that should have been associated with synagogue since his childhood… Ideally, a visit to synagogue should be a reward. If the child demonstrates that he can behave nicely, then we grant him a visit to the synagogue. Such an approach makes a visit to synagogue a precious experience.

Last week, I posted these two positions on Facebook and asked readers – What do you think? I was surprised by how many responses the question drew and the level of intensity and vehemence in those answers.

The question of which perspective is correct remains a good one with compelling arguments on both sides. However, a pervasive theme among those who answered was, why are we talking about the issue of children and decorum in shul when the much bigger issue is with adults. In other words, if we are worried about children developing a sense of awe and reverence for our most sacred spaces, it begins with our young people having role models and examples from whom to learn.

Not talking during davening is really hard. It doesn’t matter if you are the rabbi or a congregant, if you understand every word of the siddur or can’t read Hebrew at all, if you connect to God through prayer or struggle to feel you are in His presence at all, no matter what it is difficult. Sitting through a service that takes anywhere from an hour and a half to three hours, depending on the minyan and the particular weekend, surrounded by friends one rarely sees, not exchanging any greeting or conversing is difficult, if not impossible.

Davening with full concentration and no urge to talk has never been easy, but our generation is particularly challenged in this area because of the ubiquitous presence of technology in our lives and the result of our decreasing attention span.

Some shuls have held “no talking campaigns” including listing the names of those who have signed a commitment not to talk at all during davening. Others have appointed decorum police who have been deputized to maintain the quiet by patrolling and shushing those that open their mouths other than in prayer. It is my understanding that those solutions are short-lived and not sustainable. The insatiable urge to be social combined with the growing inability to focus for that long cannot be overcome in the long run by campaigns and shushing.

After giving this issue great thought and discussing it with colleagues, here is my personal pledge and my suggestion for you. While it may be difficult to not talk at all from the very beginning of davening until the very end, there are core components in which both because of halacha and common courtesy, nobody should be saying a word.

Boca Raton Synagogue hosts a club nobody wants to belong to. The Kaddish Club meets once a month. It is comprised of those in their period of mourning for the loss of a loved one. We gather to study a relevant Torah text and provide a supportive environment with those going through similar circumstances. Members of the Kaddish Club throughout the years have described how important and significant it is for them to recite Kaddish. In those moments, they think about and picture their loved one and feel they are paying great tribute and honor. When those around them are talking or schmoozing it is a great affront to their tribute and to the memory of their loved one. We would never start talking to the person next to us while attending a memorial service. For the members of this unenviable club, every Kaddish is a mini memorial service and those that disrupt are rude, offensive, and hurtful.

But it isn’t only for mourners’ Kaddish that we must make a commitment never to talk. Kaddish is a holy prayer. It can only be said in a minyan and demands that we stand out of respect while it is recited. Moreover, our rabbis taught (Shabbos 119b), R’ Yehoshua ben Levi said, Whoever responds Amen, Yehei shemi rabbah with all of his strength and concentration has any decrees against him torn up. Each Kaddish is an opportunity to affirm our commitment to live lives of Kiddush Hashem and to merit great blessings. Is anyone so secure in his or her blessings and not needing any more that they can afford to talk during Kaddish and forfeit the merit of answering it properly?

Whichever side of the bringing children to shul debate you come out on, we can all agree that as adults we must do a better job of being role models. We must aspire not to talk at all or walk out on davening. In the meantime we should work on not talking from Baruch She’amar through the repetition of the amidah or when the Torah is being read.

But minimally for now, let’s all commit to never ever talk during Kaddish. It is not only an act of sensitivity to the members of the Kaddish Club and their loved ones, but it is among the greatest things we can do for ourselves.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.