I was once a guest at a synagogue in a town distant from mine. The rabbi there had a reputation for a very stern demeanor, on and off the pulpit. So I was surprised to notice a good deal of commotion from children in the very formal sanctuary. I mentioned it to the friend who hosted me who responded, “The rabbi never allowed children in the sanctuary unless they were silent. If a baby made noise during his sermon, he would stop until the child was removed by one or both parents. And then one Shabbat morning, his grandson bolted away from his parents and went running up to the pulpit yelling, ‘Grandpa!!’ From that day on, children were welcome to be children here.”
I know that ambience well. One of my rabbis (never mind which) once began a sermon very dramatically, only to be interrupted by a baby’s yelp. He stared down the mother until she slunk out of the sanctuary with her little one. I don’t think I ever saw them again. And clearly, I never forgot it either.
I love kids of all ages, but especially little ones. Each age has its special delights, but the tiny ones are the most delicious. During my first Yom Kippur as a congregational rabbi, I picked up a little girl from her frustrated mother just before the afternoon prayers and she promptly fell asleep in my arms as I conducted the service. (I did not beat my breast during the confessional for fear of disturbing her.) For all my years in the pulpit, when parents brought their babies to Saturday services for the first time, I would carry them in the Torah procession and up to the open ark as the congregation sang “all its path are peace.” I whispered into uncomprehending ears, “All of this is for you, and I will teach you anything you want to know.” When I had the chance to bring my own granddaughter to that place…well…
The noises of little children never disturbed me in the pulpit, even when I was speaking. I know it frustrated some members of the congregation to no end that I could ignore the babble and occasional crying. I not only tolerated but celebrated the ones who would toddle up to the bima, jump off the stairs, run around the place behind the ark or come to sit in the big chairs where the clergy and officers would sit. I could even mostly ignore the yellers. I meant what I said to them when they were tiny: all of this is for you. Only once in 34 years did I ask parents to remove a child; it was time for the Yom Kippur sermon and the topic was very difficult; it required my full concentration just to get through the words I had written. As I began, a child began to yell. The little one was not crying or complaining, just yelling as kids sometimes do. I could not focus. Stammering my apologies, I asked that the child be taken outside so that I did not have to outshout the yelling.
The only problem with babies is that we do not have enough of them. My father’s generation had 48 first cousins. Mine has 15. My kids’ has 11. There are all sorts of reasons for that decline, and I judge no one for the lack of desire, ability or opportunity to raise children. All the more reason to treasure the ones we have and to make them feel as comfortable as possible in the places we want them to frequent as they get older.
(Do they need instruction on respectful behavior? Yes. More on that at a later time, other than to say that my experience is that the ones who learn to love synagogue at an early age are the easiest ones to educate on the special nature of the place.)
I read a brief essay by a man who claimed he was “banned from synagogue” because of his baby. It made me very sad, though he wasn’t exactly banned and it wasn’t exactly his synagogue (I understand why he felt that way). What he described – a rule against children in the sanctuary before noon – excludes two generations from the community, so-called family services in a segregated location notwithstanding. I just don’t get it, and I never tolerated it.
Parents or designated caregivers have a responsibility to consider the people around them if a child’s behavior interferes with the ability of others to pray or learn. And congregants, with a little forethought and practice, can learn how to say, “Your little one is adorable, but I am having trouble hearing the cantor clearly. I am sorry to ask you this, but might you take her outside for a little while? Please bring her back when she is happier.”
But it is the rabbinic ego that insists that pronouncements from the pulpit carry more enlightenment and joy that the sound of a child being a child. Not every rabbi shares my interest is tuning out pint-sized competition. Yet, however long the rabbi toiled over a sermon or page announcements, the very people she or he wants to reach are the ones raising that organic noisemaker.
And neither is the rabbi the enforcer for impatient congregants. I think the rabbi should stick up for the kids.
When I am asked if I miss being in the pulpit, my answer is that I do not. I don’t avoid it, but my life remains full without the weekly need to present ideas and encourage prayer. But truth be told, here is what I do miss: escorting those infants to their first encounter with the Torah. I only wish I had done it more.
Bullying is a serious problem and it is wrong. I want to go on record with that statement because without making it explicit, you might think I believe otherwise.
A colleague of mine wrote a column in The Forward in which he discusses being bullied by his congregants. There was probably a sad smile of recognition on the part of every rabbi who read that essay because there are such people in every congregation.
(There are also devoted acolytes, sycophants, humble saints, deeply needy people, sociopaths, paragons of compassion and more in every congregation. Sometimes they are all the same person.)
Most rabbis, certainly this one, want to be loved. It comes as a shock when someone seems to be personally antagonistic or even downright cruel instead of appreciative and respectful. And when confronted by congregants who are aggressive or enraged, the dissonance a rabbi feels can be disabling.
Professional training and collective wisdom encourage conciliation and understanding. The rabbinic amygdala demands fight or flight. And even if the rabbi, certainly this one, could overcome the sense that “a rabbi ought to be wise enough to deal with these things alone,” there is never a guarantee that effective and reliable allies can be mustered.
I faced difficult congregants throughout my career. I came to two insights the hard way – that is, by ignoring the good counsel of others and taking much longer to come to the same conclusion myself. I actually wrote about this a little in a previous column, and the take-away is that my own inadequacies are always magnified by the history of previous rabbis (and other authority figures) with my challengers.
But it can be hard to remember that. A particularly forbidding member, used to getting her way with a predecessor of mine, sent me into a funk when she told me, “You are a cold person. Lots of people feel that way.” Another member accused me of “oppressing widows and orphans” (she was both) when the synagogue raised dues – and made a formal complaint to my professional organization that, ridiculous as it was, I had to answer. A third congregant kept track of how many lights were on in the (synagogue-owned) house we occupied for a few years, and reported it to the board. (By the way, all those people have been called to their eternal reward, so they are not you.)
So the first insight is that most people, seeing these interactions, recognize them for what they are: bad behavior. Synagogues are notoriously forgiving communities, accommodating difficult personalities and even enabling them out of love and compassion – no different than most religious institutions. If you need proof, compare the numbers of people who quit synagogues with the number who are disaffiliated. But just because you love someone does not mean you like them. I almost always discovered that lots and lots of people shared my frustration with these contentious folks.
And my second insight is that, except for the sociopaths (and there are a few), when bad behavior is pointed out to the offenders they are shocked at themselves. I should know it from personal experience, but when I am on the receiving end, it is hard to remember that my own excesses are usually unintentional. I remember speaking to a congregant about bad behavior and, after he shamefacedly owned it, hearing him say, “That’s not who I am.” I guess that’s what Yom Kippur and its preceding days of repentance are all about.
So I am not sure that clergy bullying per se is as prevalent as rabbis think it is. Sometimes we smack a label on something that helps us get a handle on it, but the complexities can disappear behind the generic category.
But to return to the beginning, bullying is a serious problem, and it is wrong. Even with all of the insight my decades in the pulpit inspired, there were times when I knew I was being pushed around by someone with personal animosities. The behavior was reprehensible; even so, I felt like a crybaby when I complained. And the gulf between the expectation that the rabbi will always be the adult in the room and the attempt by a bully to infantilize the rabbi can be impossible to straddle.
Any rabbi will also smile knowingly when you mention that there are friends of rabbis, too. They may have the best of motivations or some of the same pathologies, but they are quietly beloved by those of us deeply grateful for their support. It’s not all bad.
What is the solution to clergy bullying? Well, no different than on the playground or the campaign trail: good people need to stand up for what is right.