It’s that time again. The summer is ending (or already over in some places) and families are starting to look around for a synagogue to join—or at least a place to go for the High Holidays. If you have a new toddler, this might be your first time trying to find a community with a toddler in tow, and any parent knows how stressful that can be. You want to find a place that is welcoming to your family, but you don’t want your child to run screaming up the aisles during services.
As a rabbi who works in a congregation, I haven’t done much “shul shopping,” but I’ve talked to many, many families considering joining a synagogue. It can be daunting, so over the years I have gathered some advice that might be helpful to families who are looking around.
Most families need to take a multi-pronged approach—going places with your toddler, making phone calls, and sometimes going on your own. Here are some suggestions for finding a synagogue that speaks to you and your toddler.
1. Check out Tot Shabbat. Most synagogues will have some kind of welcome back Tot Shabbat, on Friday night or Saturday morning. This can be a family-friendly, less stressful way to get to know a community.
2. Join a class. Many synagogues offer parenting classes, baby and me, or toddler classes, either through their nursery school, their Hebrew school, or stand alone. This can be a great way to get to know others in the community and make a buddy with other people in your age demographic.
3. Find a buddy and check out services together. If you took a class, you have a built-in buddy who is probably also connected to the synagogue and may also be dipping their toe in the water. If you haven’t met anyone yet, you can bring someone you already know. See if someone will go with you, with or without your child, since it can be intimidating to walk into a new place without knowing anyone. You will know right away if you have found a warm and welcoming community, and one that fits with your Jewish observance. If you bring your child and they get squirmy, don’t be shy about asking if there is a playroom or a library or another space where your toddler can hang out for a little while. The answer to that will tell you a lot about who they are expecting to show up at services.
4. Call the synagogue. Almost every synagogue has someone, whether in the education or membership office, who is dying to talk to you and help you navigate their community with your toddler. You can ask about classes and kids programming, but also about ways for you and your family to get involved.
5. Get set up with another member. Different communities have different customs around how formally people dress, use of electronics on Shabbat, and a host of other things. If you ask, most synagogues will be happy to make the introduction to another family with kids your child’s age so that you can ask questions and know what to expect when you show up at an event.
Keep in mind that finding a community to call home can be a process, not something that is necessarily accomplished in just one visit or one holiday or one celebration. If you have multiple options, it is perfectly OK to shop around. Synagogues expect it. If you only have one option, it can be more challenging to find the community you want. In either case, getting involved can be the most effective way to find a way in and a connection to a synagogue community. Then, you can have a voice in making it the warm, welcoming place you want it to be for your family and any that come after you.