SHHH... IT'S A SANCTUARY
Jeffrey K. Salkin
t was a Shavaut morning. A young woman was delivering her confirmation
address from the bimah on the lessons of the Holocaust when a toddler
began to howl--unceasingly. People in the pews began fidgeting in discomfort.
Finally, the father of another confirmand approached the toddler's parents and
politely suggested they take the child out of the sanctuary. "My child is here
for his cousin's confirmation!" the mother replied indignantly. "He has a
right to be here!" The confirmand's right to be heard had been trumped by
a coddled two-year-old's right to a temple tantrum.
problem is by no means new. One late medieval text complains about children's
public behavior, including tales of young children urinating in the corners of
synagogues! Things were apparently so bad that our liturgy includes a special
Mi Sheberach blessing composed by Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Ha-Levi Heller of
Moravia (1579-1654) in honor of those who don't talk in synagogue. "May
the One who blessed our ancestors... bless all who guard their mouths and
tongues and do not speak during the time of prayer." The good rabbi wasn't just
addressing children; he was talking about adult behavior as well. He would have
sadly recognized the contemporary synagogue--congregants noisily shuffling in
late, cell phones ringing, people whispering to one another rather than
participating in the service.
Yet the fact that our
ancestors confronted these challenges doesn't grant the green light to those
folks who prefer to "let it all hang out" at the expense of everyone else. It is
not okay to treat the sanctuary as a stadium or a movie theater. It is not okay
for our synagogues to operate like "kinderarchies," where kids' desires rule us.
It is not okay for parents to look the other way whenever their children act
out. And it is not okay for us to excuse such behavior with the lame
rationalization: "At least they come to synagogue."
No, I am not suggesting that
parents and children sit rigidly in the pews like the "frozen chosen." There is
already too much of that. But we can take some concrete steps to involve our
children, in particular, and still maintain the sanctity of our worship. In my
last congregation I placed a few dozen Jewish children's books in a bin at the
back of the sanctuary and suggested that kids and their parents help themselves
whenever the spirit moved them. The kids loved it and the parents were grateful.
Some congregations conduct a parallel worship experience for young children, who
then rejoin their parents at an appropriate time. Others have followed the lead
of churches, designating a "crying room" for parents and small children in which
parents and kids can see and hear the service through a one-way window and audio
monitors, but cannot be seen or heard.
We Reform Jews want
spirituality in our worship. But spirituality requires kedusha, holiness.
In a pointed and loving way, Jewish leaders, both lay and professional, must
teach congregants how to be part of a worshiping community. It means saying: "In
order for us to worship as a holy community in the presence of God, please read
along with the service, sing along with the music, remain in the sanctuary
during the Torah reading, turn off cell phones and beepers, and do not allow
your children to disrupt the service."
To restore decorum, we can't
just treat the symptoms. We have to look at the whole system of worship. The
more participation, the better the flow of our liturgy, the more joyful our
music--the more everyone will be involved and invested in being part of a
At the outdoor sanctuary at
UAHC Eisner Camp-Institute, a sign reads: "Quiet please....prayers rising."
Maybe the kids will lead us, after all.
Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
is spiritual leader of The Temple in Atlanta, Georgia.
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