This past Simchat Torah was a very special one for me. For the first time I was able to make an aliyah to the Torah with my son, 16 months old, sippy cup in hand. As I juggled him in my arms I recited the familiar blessings, my voice punctuated with his own enthusiastic babble. “Is that really what you think?” Our cantor replied to him with a smile before commencing the reading. This, of course, was my son’s cue to demand to get down and crawl around, exploring the bimah and deciding to claim the rabbi’s podium as his own. Afterwards the congregants cooed over my little guy, complimenting me on how cute and wonderful he is and hoping to engage him in a bit of conversation or play.
None of this should seem out of place, but it is. For many Jewish parents of young children, holidays, let alone weekly Shabbat services, are simply out of the question. Unfortunately, each holiday season seems to inspire yet another parental tale of woe, usually involving older congregants or stiff clergy shooting nasty looks at parents before stabbing them in the back (or even more awkwardly, in the face) with a rude comment about their child’s “bad behavior.” Most of the time this “bad behavior” equates to an 18-month-old suddenly sprinting down an aisle, as most 18-month-olds are wont to do. Some stories even involve families trekking babies long distances only to find out that their beloved Bubbe’s shul doesn’t permit children under b’nai mitzvah age in the sanctuary at all.
These horror stories have come to define synagogue life. More than one young family has shied away from visiting a new place or revisiting an old one out of fear that they, too, will get little more out of services than the dreaded criticism of being a bad parent. The habit of frowning upon normal childhood behaviors is a Victorian holdover that the Conservative and Reform movements have sought to change. Alas, stereotypes are difficult to overcome. But, as a people who have suffered the sting of far too many stereotypes over the course of our existence, we shouldn’t allow the bad behavior of past centuries to define us or our relationship with our community.
The first time we attended our Conservative synagogue both my husband and I feared how our son might behave in the sanctuary. To our delight, he took a great interest in the service, marveling at the cantor’s voice and swaying along to more than one prayer. He got so into the event that, to our horror, he squirmed and bolted straight down the center aisle towards the bimah. “Oh, let him crawl,” one middle aged man smiled as I chased after him. That simple kindness (along with the rabbi’s willingness to high-five a two-year-old who’d bolted up the steps in his general direction) was shocking to both my husband and me. It was also a huge relief. Witnessing this proved to us that we didn’t have to wait until our son was old enough to attend Hebrew school to begin our synagogue journey. It also reminded us that while we are our son’s primary caretakers, we are not raising him alone under constant threat of judgement.
Recent surveys of Jewish millennials reveal that while they are overwhelmingly committed to raising Jewish children, they don’t have a clear vision of what Jewish community looks like or, most importantly, their relationship to it. Perhaps this is because their greatest complaint about the Jewish community is that, at times, they feel “unwelcomed,” leading them to be “cautious” when it comes to developing relationships with Jewish institutions. While there will always be disagreements about practice and politics, one thing we can all agree on is that synagogues must establish a community where every Jew feels welcomed and every member is given a sense of belonging.