Monday, January 9, 2017

Children In the Synagogue

I found this article that I wrote in 1996.  It is still valid today.  I only made minor edits and corrections.

Children In the Synagogue?
Daniel D. Stuhlman
September 1996

I. Introduction

Elul, the month before Rosh HaShanah, is the time we prepare for high holiday season. In the daily
services we hear the shofar. In school children learn about the holidays and their special customs and ceremonies. Adults especially those who have or know children are wondering, “What are the children going to do when I’m in shul?” We examine our feelings toward prayer and the services. Some of us wonder about the hazzan; some wonder “Am I going to be stirred or bored?”


       II. What is Prayer?

Tefilah (Jewish prayer) is a very complex process because the nature of tefilah is multifaceted. Prayer is a communication with that which is beyond human experience. Jewish prayer is a blueprint for every part of daily activity from the time of waking until one falls asleep. Tefilah consists of blessings, selections from psalms, hymns (or poems), quotes from the Tanach, systems or groups of blessings, words of thanksgiv­ing, requests, and outpourings of emotion.

The Siddur (prayer book) is one of the crowning achievements of Pharisees. They took the abstract teachings of the prophets, the liturgy and ritual of the Holy Temple, the living experience of their day and transformed them into the worship of the synagogue. In the Torah we have the spontaneous song of Miriam. In the book of Samuel we have the request of Hannah for a son. The prophets taught about the approach of the Jewish people toward God. The Siddur is a treasure house of the Jewish spirit and a guide to prayer. The Siddur is contains prayers in a particular order, but it is not tefilah. The Siddur brings us in contact with Jewish history and experience.

Tephilah is a vague esoteric term that is hard to define. We have a popular notion of what prayer is in our society, but the definitions change with time. Prayer is not the invention of rabbis or religious leaders, but they may write prayers. Prayer preceded revelation at Sinai. Prayer is communication between the heart and soul with God. The longing to pour out one’s heart to God is not a uniquely Jewish experience. One who believes in God and creation needs to show respect and admiration for his creator. Prayer is a search for all good and ultimate perfection--God.

Prayer comes from a person’s sense of wonder and awareness of creation. For example, the morning blessings (berkhot ha-shahar) thank God for every day events. Barukh she’amar is an appreciation of creation. Some prayers connect us to history (ex. remembering that we were slaves in Egypt). Some prayers are petitions asking for healing of the sick or welfare for the country.

Our challenge is how do we share a concept or feeling that is so indefinable? We can explain the words, the tunes, customs and laws for prayers, and order of the prayers, but that is not the same as prayer.

            III. Saying Prayers

The act of saying of reciting prayers is often called “davaning”. The word “davaning” is not the same as “praying”. Davaning is uniquely Jewish act. Davaning is an action that one performs. Getting ready and participating in “davaning” is a learned discipline. One must be encouraged at a young age to say prayers regularity. The act of praying is not the same everyday. Not only are one’s feelings different, but also everyday we have variations on the prayers said. Each day we have a different psalm and on Mondays and Thursdays we read the Torah. Each day people have different reactions to the words.

We teach children the words and mechanics of the prayers. As part of the teaching process schools and parents may enforce attendance at services. The teaching process must be repeated until it is internalized. We teach the routines and halakha for saying prayers. However, saying prayers is not the same as praying. Saying prayers comes from the mouth; praying comes from the heart. To encourage children to learn to say prayers, adults must set the example. The example of seeing adults at services is a powerful re-enforcement of what we teach children.

            IV. Children in the Synagogue

In the Talmud (Hagigah 3a-b) Rabbi Eleazar asked, “Why do people assemble for prayer?” The answer is that the men come to learn, the women to hear and children to bring reward to those who bring them.

In the middle ages[1] children had an over privileged position in the synagogue. His description is not very different than our synagogue. The medieval synagogues accepted the role to both train and nurture the children. The synagogue is an extension of the school and home. As soon as the child was old enough he was taught to answer amen. He was taught to hold the siddur with reverence. Gradually the parents would teach the words and process of the prayers and service. On Friday night the child would be give the privilege of drinking some of the wine of kiddish. On Shabbat morning he would be encouraged to kiss the Torah as it passed. On Sukkot he may be given the lulav and etrog to hold. Finally, at bar mitzvah the boy would be called to the Torah as a sign the he is a part of the congregation.

We often balance conflicting demands of children, community, and personal davaning during this season. I offer my own guidelines based on my experience as a teacher, parent, and gabbal for the position of children in the synagogue.

1.   The Bet Knesset (synagogue’s sanctuary) is a makom kodesh (holy place). It is better to davan with a minyan in a Bet Knesset than to pray alone. Every person who attends the Bet Knesset has the right to pray with the congregation. Everyone deserves to hear the hazzan, rabbi, or Torah reader and follow the services.

2.   Everyone has a right to recite prayers to the best of their ability or to listen to others recite prayers.

3.   No one has the right to intentionally or unintentionally disturb others who are trying to concentrate on the service or their individual prayers.

4.   Children should be encouraged to attend services and participate to the best of their ability. While children are the primary responsibility of their parents, the synagogue should make provisions for babysitting or children’s services. Children should be taught about the sanctity of the Bet Knesset and respect for others. Children need an environment to learn how to davan. Some children do best sitting next to one of their parents. For others, babysitting or children’s services are the best places. All adults should set good examples for the children in the sanctuary. 

        5.   A fine line exists between child participation, play, and disturbances. A child who is yelling, screaming, or crying does not belong in the sanctuary. A child should not be using furniture or fixtures in the sanctuary as climbing toys. A child with a dirty diaper that can be smelled should immediately be removed from the sanctuary. Running from place to place in the sanctuary should be limited. If the children are playing in such a manner that they are disturbing people, they should be removed. Remember that parents come to daven, too. They may need some extra support or compassion to help them cope with a difficult child.

        6.   Children who are trying to daven should be encouraged. Opening a siddur and saying words is their form of prayer. Greeting people at shul is one way children learn to be members of the kahal (congregation).

           V.  How children learn

John Holt has been a big influence on my theory of education. Here are some examples from Holt’s book.

There is an old story of two men passing some naked looking sheep in a field. The first one said, “The sheep have just been sheared.” The second one said, “They seem to be on this side.”

We have to be cautious how we judge the events in front of us. We have to be careful before we judge the inner workings of the mind. Holt describes games and experiments that children use for learning. Little children love games and can make anything into a game. Holt asks, “How can you tell what the children are learning, or even that they are learning anything? The answer is simple. We can’t tell. We can’t be sure. What I [Holt] am trying to say about education rests in a belief .. I cannot prove .. call it faith.” [2]

Children learn by observing the world around them. They try experiments. We teach children the words of brakhot and when to say amen. Sometimes they learn how to go beyond the words and pray from the heart. Often the words are said and ideas are not internalized. When the words and ideas are internalized we have kavanah (or intention). Without kavanah words are merely mechanically reproduced. Orekh Hayyim 98:2 tells us that we should not pray in a place where there is interference with kavanah.

Music and chants are aids to achieving kavanah. Since music has a power to stir the soul we have certain laws and customs for chanting prayers. The nusah (ritual chant) varies on weekdays, Shabbat and holidays. The hazzan has a certain amount of latitude to vary the tunes. This helps to keep the interest of the congregation. The wrong nusah will upset the kavanah and mood of many members of the congregation.

           VI. Conclusion

Dr. Heschel tells us that services need life. No one will attain new perspectives into the life he lives without life. Children are our future and our life. While we prepare for the upcoming holidays, make a place for children.

            VII.       Bibliography

Dembitz, Lewis N. Jewish services in the synagogue and home. Philadelphia, 1898.

Donin, Hayim Halevy. To pray as a Jew. New York, 1980.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. “The spirit of Jewish prayer,” in Proceedings of the
Rabbinical Assembly of America. v. 17 (1953) p. 151-177.

Holt, John. How children learn. New York, 1969.

Kohn, Eugene. “Prayer and the modern Jew,” in Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly
of America. v. 17 (1953) p. 179-191.

Milgram, Abraham. Jewish worship. Philadelphia, 1971.

Petuchoski, Jakob J. Understanding Jewish prayer. New York, 1972.

 [2] Holt, J. How Children learn. p. 189.   

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