I’m going to go out on a limb here and bet that, whenever you were most recently at synagogue, you witnessed someone shushing, eye-rolling, audible sighing, or glaring at another person during services.
And if you have small kids, I’m going to take this a step further and bet that this behavior was directed at you or your offspring.
But I’m here to say that this needs to be stopped. Finished. Shut down, once and for all. And, to be clear, I’m talking about the shushing and the sighing, and not — repeat: not — the noises that elicit such behavior.
Shushing isn’t kind, and it isn’t respectful. And the consequences can be dire. It seems to me that most of the people doing the shushing hardly think about the choice that they are making — but I can confidently assert that the ones being shushed are deeply affected by these expressions. Such behaviors are negatively impacting Jewish continuity — and, yes, it is that big of a deal.
I just finished an enormous research project about engaging families with young children through Shabbat services. I was startled by how many synagogue leaders are investing time and money in order to attract young families — and then these families are alienated by members of the community.
In interviews, I heard about how it was the seemingly small details that dictate a family’s decision to participate. For example, a stool in the bathroom, so children could reach the sink, was an authentic signal that the community recognizes and accommodates the needs of young children. A shush from a congregant when a child whispered too loudly at services, however, felt like a harsh judgement — and, ultimately, and indication to a family that their presence was not warmly welcomed.
Let’s run through some of the scenarios in which a person might cast a passive-aggressive expression to another during a synagogue service. And let’s consider possible reasons that the disturbance occurred (beyond he or she or they are simply “rude”).
Did you hear the ‘ding’ of a phone or device?
Maybe that person is getting a notification that an organ has become available for transplant that will save their life. Perhaps they are waiting on an update from their child’s school about a critical test.
Someone digging through their purse or pocket, making crinkling sounds?
Could they be attempting to open a bottle of medication, struggling because of their arthritis? Or maybe they are hard of hearing, reaching to adjust the volume of their hearing aid but totally unaware of the sounds they create.
Little kids babbling? Baby crying? Child talking?
The adult accompanying them is entirely aware that this is happening and is trying hard to navigate the circumstance. Perhaps the dad knows that removing the child will likely result in the whispers elevating to a scream as they are carried out. Maybe the mom holding the whimpering baby needs to say kaddish because she birthed multiples, but the baby’s sibling didn’t make it. The child might have special needs or sensory processing challenges that make it impossible for you to imagine his or her experience.
Are any of these scenarios true? Honestly, I don’t know. But here’s the thing: neither do you. So instead of shushing or sighing, think about how you’d be sensitive and supportive to a person with any of these circumstances, and then treat every person with such lovingkindness. Too many people are being turned off to synagogue life because a vocal minority of members are (unintentionally, I think) sending a message that they are unwelcome.
To be sure, I’m not suggesting that we just let mayhem fly during communal worship experiences. If there is a significant distraction that might be emerging into a pattern, please thoughtfully and sensitively address it with the leadership of your community. (Ideally, don’t do it directly after the service, or when you are still actively annoyed.) Remember that the synagogue’s leadership is not responsible for whatever distraction occurred, but they are a resource to help find a solution.
Welcoming others, along with the noises they may make, is an easy call to action. There is no money required, no board approval to petition. All you have to do is stop with any and all attempts to control other people’s behavior in synagogue that are anything less than entirely respectful, kind, and supportive. (Except, of course, your own family members — in that case, rule them however you see fit, and good luck!). As my toddler would say: “You worry about your own self.”
So, please, model the behavior you’d like others to display.
Do it because you can remember a time when you were a vulnerable member of the community and didn’t perfectly align with the expectations of the others.
Do it because the Torah teaches us to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Do it because the Talmud says, “all of Israel is responsible for one another.”
Do it because babies are adorable, and you want them to return because your synagogue can’t sustain itself financially unless it attracts new members.
Go ahead and choose one of these reasons, or find another that resonates more. But whatever you do, motivate yourself to show respect and kindness, even in moments of distraction or frustration.