Last Shabbat, I was in synagogue with my three children. My girls are seven and four, my baby boy is one. Several women suggested that I should bring my children to the playroom area designated for kids. One of the fellow mothers casually mentioned that she just dropped off her kids upstairs and I should go check it out and drop my kids off.
Then, an older woman sat down in the row behind us and began saying “shhh” every time my daughter hummed to the prayers or tried to sing the words with me. The shhh got louder when my daughter asked me if she would get to kiss the Torah that was being taken out of the ark. I decided to turn around and ask the woman why she kept shushing at my children, who were doing their best to feel part of the service and who, for the record, really weren’t being loud.
This woman said, “Shul really isn’t a place for children. They belong in the playroom; they don’t know how to pray properly.”
I told her I am not sure if there is a “proper” way for anyone to pray. We all do our best and follow along at our own paces, right?
My seven year old was reading the English words in the siddur while following along in Hebrew with some prayers that she knew. My four year old was swaying to the familiar songs and trying to see the Torah with the hopes of getting to touch and kiss it when the rabbi carries it around the sanctuary. My one year old was quietly resting on my shoulder and occasionally clapping if he heard anyone else clapping to a tune.
My children aren’t perfect, and I have seen children next to their parents playing with a small puzzle or toy cars. But just hearing them whisper “Amen” at the end of a prayer, I’m assured these kids are learning. They are learning what community togetherness feels like. They are learning what it feels like to be Jewish.
Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate that there are playrooms in separate areas where some parents opt to drop off their children so they can have quiet time to pray. But I bring my children to services so we can experience group prayer together as a family. I want my children to grow up remembering the songs they heard in synagogue while sitting on my lap. I want them to experience being part of their Jewish community, and not just from the sidelines. Children should be able to feel the sanctuary is a place of welcome and worship. No, synagogue isn’t just for grown-ups.
I bring my kids to synagogue to teach them. I am teaching them how we pray, the tunes of the songs we sing, and what it feels like to be together with fellow Jews on Shabbat. My children love when they see the Torah. My one year old claps when he hears the songs. My seven and four year old are making memories of being in the sanctuary together with their family.
If parents want to bring their children to the playroom, that’s fine, but I’ll keep bringing my kids to the sanctuary with me so they grow to love prayer, learn leadership alongside adults, and make memories as Jewish people. And one day they can pass these traditions onto the next generation, too.