I never thought I’d reach a point in life where I considered what synagogue I should join based on the men’s room. But here I am.
Since becoming a parent, I’ve changed a lot of diapers. I’ve changed diapers on beds, on airplane seat trays, on couches, on floors, and—during moments of great fortune—on changing tables. Like many other parents who live with the constant fear of not having a clean place to change their baby, my family brings multiple changing pads wherever we go. I always breathe a sigh of relief whenever I am somewhere where there’s a space designated for me to lay down a changing pad, a baby, a box of wipes, a tube of diaper rash cream, and a clean diaper.
Before I became a parent, I became a regular synagogue-goer. Sometimes in life it was weekly attendance; sometimes it was daily, or even three times a day. Going to synagogue, which used to be rote, has now become an event—an event with a 45-minute prelude of asking myself what I’m forgetting to bring.
Most Shabbat mornings, it is inevitable that I will feel the duty to leave a sanctuary in order to retreat to a restroom and, through a familiar but laborious process, substitute one dirty diaper for a clean one. I have spent many Shabbat mornings, though, in sacred buildings where there is no space for me, a man, to change a baby’s diaper.
Some men might feel excused from diaper-related activities, but I am one among many non-women folk who accept this responsibility (with some combination of joy and trepidation). When I am in a public space that provides an easy way for babies to be changed by those who are not women, I can believe that I am somewhere that validates and values my kind of parenting. And, trust me—even more than I want that particular feeling at a rest stop at the edge of New Jersey, I want synagogue to be the kind of place that honors how my family manages its baby-related needs.
When my spouse (who is scheduled to become a rabbi in May 2016) is leading services, reading Torah, sermonizing, or performing other functions of her rabbinic internship, I serve another calling: that of our infant. I am grateful to the Conservative Jews of Port Washington, NY, who ensured that Temple Beth Israel’s men’s room has a place for me to change diapers. The changing station on which I rely when we’re there was not a given. It was a thoughtful but expensive (and, some would argue, unconventional) addition for a synagogue that was fortunate enough to undergo a few renovations last year.
For anyone who may have questioned all the money that went into this hard plastic board, I can attest that this changing station makes synagogue a happier place for all parties involved—including those sitting next to us. (If modern Jewish worship is modeled after ancient Israelite sacrifices—with those “pleasant smells” the Torah recalls—then a synagogue with cleaner diapers brings us a little closer to that ancient olfactory experience.)
The word “synagogue,” which comes from the Greek words “bringing together” (as in, bringing Jews together), does not do justice as a translation for the warm nurturing sound of the Hebrew beyt keneset, “a house of gathering.” It is where we gather so frequently, so comfortably, so familiarly, and so easily. A good synagogue is a good home.
Though I have always felt comfortable at Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, I never truly felt as at home there as I did on my most recent trip for my cousin’s bat mitzvah ceremony. While some synagogues are just getting on board with the changing-stations-for-all bandwagon, Beth Jacob’s men’s room has a full-fledged changing table set—the kind that you might have been changed on if you grew up in a middle-class American household. The bathroom’s carpeted floor also felt like a more inviting way to place my diaper bag down on a clean surface (though I’m not sure why I imagine that carpets are cleaner than bathroom floor tiles). While changing diapers never feels easy (even though I know exactly what I’m doing), I felt at ease changing diapers at Beth Jacob. I felt relaxed; I felt home.
About two millennia ago, synagogues typically served as inns for those who were traveling abroad. A few holy steps above those rest stops at the edge of New Jersey, ancient synagogues served as a motel with a minyan. Synagogues were historically built to accommodate the needs of the Jew-on-the-go. When I go to synagogue with a tallit, a baby in a stroller, and a diaper bag filled to the brim, we are two Jews-on-the-go, ready for adventure (and praying that there will be no adventure whatsoever). Even though my infant hasn’t said anything in so many words, we all are in favor of believing that our sojourn will grant us peace and comfort in the form of some homelike place to change a diaper.
I truly enjoy going to synagogue. I like to pray, and I like to see how we Jews build engaging and inclusive homes for our people. If I haven’t been to your synagogue yet, I’ll be happy to make arrangements to come if you invite me. And I hope you don’t mind if I use the changing station.