It is a pretty common scene, I think: early on a Friday evening, (tired) families gather for a short service before the ‘main’ worship service. Before it begins, we play simple, upbeat, Shabbat music while the parents schmooze and settle, the kids color name tags. We always start a few minutes after the “start” time because “Jewish” time + getting kids in car seats = tardiness. The sanctuary has the first few rows of chairs removed, leaving a carpet where kids can sit and move, with chairs on the perimeter of the space, so adults can sit comfortably, too.
The Rabbi and I lead a short service that includes lots of participation and movement, simple songs and basic rituals.
I have two kids and two years of experience being a mom—but I have about a decade of work experience as an Jewish early childhood music educator. I take Tot Shabbat really seriously, like, probably comically seriously. I’m writing a doctoral dissertation on it, as I’m (still) trying to finish up grad school.
But recently, a Tot Shabbat experience made me doubt my own abilities in both the maternal and professional realms. My two-year-old toddler is dancing in the sanctuary before the service begins, and her smiles makes my heart happy.
She starts to climb the bima stairs, which is not allowed (not child-proof, candles burning, minor hazards but a boundary nonetheless). I ask my husband to keep her off the bima. The service begins and she runs around the sanctuary, makes noise at inappropriate times (displaying her brand new verbal skills by asking loudly for her Grandma), attempts to share crackers from her snack cup with a younger baby, and continues to try to climb onto the bima.
I become embarrassed, distracted and annoyed. I work alongside a fabulous Rabbi. Feeling self-conscious, I say to him, “Oy—now it is my kid who is running around the sanctuary!” He smiles at me and responds, gently teasing: “What is it you are always telling me? It is ‘developmentally appropriate’?”
It makes me feel better. I know it is. I know he’s right. But what I know to be true, cognitively, doesn’t match what is happening emotionally. It’s my kid this time. I feel vulnerable: What are people thinking about me and my ability to teach and guide their children when my own kid is all over the place?
I am embarrassed that my kid isn’t abiding by the norms of the environment, even as I’m happy that she is having a great time. No, she isn’t doing anything unsafe or harmful and her grown-ups (which in this case are her dad and grandparents since I am working) are close, attentive and intervening as necessary. My kid is discovering that Shabbat services are a time for music, sharing and family.
Rationally speaking, my discomfort—a combination of a fear of judgement from other adults and insecurity that the program I designed isn’t good enough—is entirely my of my own making. In the car on the way home, my husband and I disagree about reasonable adjustments.
He would rather stay home with the kids or let her run around. I suggest that he bring her into the lobby or the back of the Sanctuary where she can move more freely with minimal distraction and bring her back when she is able to respect the boundaries of the experience. Not punitively but respectfully, for all the participants. She just turned two, but she is learning that certain behavior is appropriate in different circumstances and environments.
With some reflection, though, I’m able to remind myself that she was doing exactly what I want her to do, both as a parent and as a service leader.
Tot Shabbat is created to give kids a chance to explore sacred spaces, rituals and Jewish life. In my work life, I encourage adults who don’t have the early childhood experience or child development background to recognize that young children’s inability to follow behave the same way that adults do in synagogue is typically an indication of their development—not bad behavior or parenting.
Before my babies, I didn’t understand the vulnerability of parenthood. Now I’m wondering how many other people are attending synagogue and feeling the kind of discomfort I felt. In fact, I wonder if others feel that and stay away? It breaks my heart to think that a wayward glance that feels judgmental or comment that is delivered without sufficient thought could be so off-putting that a family winds up missing the wealth of opportunities a Jewish community can offer.
After bedtime that night, my husband and I are sitting on the couch and I’m looking through the pictures I’ve taken recently. I look at a video I took before the service. My child dances gleefully in the sanctuary to “Bim Bam” while her parents and grandparents happily clap. If this is what she takes away from the Tot Shabbat experience, that Temple is a place that family comes together, dances, smiles and supports one another to celebrate Shabbat—well, dayeinu.
My experience as a mom has informed my goals as a service leader. I am reminded to offer support, a smile, and explicit welcome to the families that might be feeling some of the things that I felt—and to get outlet covers (because some environmental adjustments are cheap and easy).