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Non-Orthodox institutional Judaism seems to suffer from a lack of young families â€“ and, more importantly, young people. We might see a handful of families with pre-school aged youngsters at the firstÂ FridayÂ “family service,â€ť but at most Shabbat services at Samâ€™s synagogue, there are rarely young children other than Jack in attendance. I know Jack is not the only infant at the synagogue, because we see other babies his age at “bagels and blocks” programÂ on SundayÂ mornings.Â In a congregation of about 300 families, why are so few young children engaged in ritual life at the synagogue?
This was mirrored when we attended Rosh Hashanah at Sam’s parentsâ€™ synagogue earlier this month.Â Upon arriving, I noticed that JackÂ was the only baby, and practically the only child, in services.Â We sat as a family (of 4 generations!), during the early Rosh Hashanah service, and – as babies do – Jack fussed a little. While wandering the halls trying to calm him down, I found the children in classrooms and playgroups. It was surprising to me to see children not sitting with their parents during one of the most important holidays of the Jewish liturgical year.Â I learned that youngsters of all ages attend the family service, later in the day, which isÂ much shorter and geared to children, whereas the other services are for adults only.Â Even duringÂ FridayÂ nightÂ services at our local synagogue, Jack is by far the youngest one in attendance.
This is drastically different than what I am used to. Whether or not it is a major holiday, it seems like familiesÂ with young children are always present at Catholic churches.Â During mass, little children read books, color, and play quietly in the pews. If the babies/toddlers/children have outbursts, their parents take them into the lobby, calm them down, and then bring them right back into the mass.Â During the most important day of the Catholic liturgical year, the entire church is full of families.Â Just last Sunday, at the end of the mass, the priest addressed the moms, calming their fears about bringing their youngsters. He said that children at mass areÂ anything but distracting,Â saying “let the children come to me.”
Are children welcome your place of worship? If our experiences at our synagogueÂ match what youâ€™ve seen, how can we shift institutional Judaism to welcome young children and families, ensuring our faithâ€™s continuity for the next generation?