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It’s OK if Your Kids Can’t Sit Through High Holiday Services

father and son

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I spent many Shabbat and festival mornings in shul as a child. And yet, when I think about all the hours I spent at synagogue growing up, I barely remember much time spent in the actual sanctuary.

Sure, I remember spending an hour or so in the obligatory “junior congregation” service, fulfilling the requirements for Hebrew school and giving my parents time to daven (pray) in peace. But when I look back on my time at synagogue as a child, the strongest (and fondest) memories I recall have little to do with sitting and praying.

Especially during the High Holidays, when my family would be in shul for several hours, my siblings and I would seek out other kids we knew. Instead of participating in services, we would engage in games of tag or we’d explore random rooms in the synagogue or wander around outside. Most of the time we behaved, though we still got the occasional scolding from a grownup.

I am certain my parents would have loved for us to sit quietly with them in the sanctuary and dutifully follow along with the service. Sometimes, we did just that. My siblings and I knew the prayers and rituals, and we respected their importance to our family. However, like most young children, we could only handle sitting, reading and praying for so long.

So, instead, we would run around and goof off until services were over. Then, finally, we could partake in the best part of synagogue — the post-service kiddush — or we went home to have lunch.

In spite of these fond memories, as a mother of two children who are growing into their Judaism, I often find myself conflicted over how they should “experience” synagogue. I want them to get out of synagogue the same spiritual connection I receive through prayer and quiet meditation. But then I pause and remember what made synagogue special for me as a child. It wasn’t the prayers and the rituals — rather, it was simply being in a space with Jewish peers, laughing and having fun without being questioned about who I was or what I believed.

My children are a minority in their school, and their Jewishness often “others” them in secular spaces. This, of course, is not so at synagogue. There they are welcomed, embraced and understood. That feeling of belonging is vital to their emotional health. And, sometimes, just being in synagogue is enough.

I have observed other families during the High Holidays, and I’ve seen how agitated some parents become when their kids won’t sit quietly in the sanctuary, dutifully following along with the service. And even as I sometimes feel similarly annoyed at my own children, I also wonder how much spiritual connection these stressed-out parents can foster when their focus is on making sure their kids are doing everything “right.”

I know that when I am caught up in worrying about how my kids are engaging in the service, and stressing over getting them to be quiet and pay attention, my own prayer suffers. I am much more fulfilled when my kids are engaged in something appropriate and enjoyable — leaving me to focus on my own prayer.  Plus, when they feel ready, my kids often choose to engage in the service.

If you are a parent attending synagogue with your kids this Rosh Hashanah, I ask you to remember how the simple act of being in shul is a huge step for your family’s connection to Judaism. If all your children want to do is sit and read a book from home while you daven alongside them, let them. If they want to go play with toys in the Hebrew school classroom (supervised and permitted), let them. If they are only interested in coming to services for the food, let them enjoy the kiddush.

Of course, I don’t mean you should let your children disrespect or disrupt the services. For families, this may mean taking turns keeping an eye on the kids while the other parents are in the sanctuary. This is when that “village” really comes into play — adults can take turns looking after the kids, regardless of who they belong to. (And, let’s face it, some grownups we know would be happy to take a break from prayer themselves!)

Of course, this year, due to the delta variant of Covid-19, many of us may be attending High Holiday services virtually. Again. Being at home does take the pressure off of having to worry about your children disrupting other congregants, especially if you are just tuning into a live feed.

Still, even if you can block out the noise of your kids, you may worry about how much they are getting out of a virtual service. What worked for my family last year during Yom Kippur was broadcasting a high-quality service onto our family room TV. While it played, we all stayed in the room together, even if the kids took some time to read, play with toys or get something to eat. Though I vastly prefer the communal feeling of being in the sanctuary, I was able to glean what I needed from the service, and felt confident just hearing the prayers was a good experience for my kids.

Though your family may choose to attend your synagogue’s virtual service, the beauty of the digital age is that you can tune into services from around the country and even the world. You might even find one specifically geared toward younger children. Remember, much like attending in-person services, the experience of simply being exposed to Jewish prayer and ritual — even passively — can be a meaningful and fulfilling experience for children.

As for myself, as I grew up and became more familiar with the prayers and synagogue rituals, I enjoyed participating in services more and more. And today, as a parent, I’m witnessing the same shift in my children. My oldest, who has been studying Hebrew prayers in religious school, often wants me to inform him when the Amidah is being recited so he can do the same, and during visits with my parents, he enjoys davening with his zayde. During the Torah service at shul, my youngest sometimes likes to sit and “read” the English translation of the weekly Torah portion (even some of the words are too hard for him).  While I wouldn’t say either of my kids is ready (or willing) to fully participate in an entire service, I can tell their interest in Jewish ritual grows every year.

No matter how your family observes the High Holidays, I think after the year we have had, most of us understand these aren’t simple times. Give your kids, and yourself, some grace, and embrace the High Holidays the best you can.

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