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.