I wish I had a better answer

Yesterday my girls and I were sitting in “family service” at our shul (ok, more accurately, Ella and I were sitting in family service while Zoe made endless what-is-the-opposite-of-beelines to the water fountain.) Even though I insist my children come to this service when it takes place each month, I don’t think any of us enjoys it. My kids would rather be playing, and I find the atmosphere moderately insufferable. While I’m thrilled by the concept of children of all ages coming together for a service on shabbat with their parents, in reality, it just doesn’t feel very shabbosdik to me. Some of the youngest children are crying or screaming, while some of the “older” children are walking noisily around or in and out of the room. Parents have a wide range of ideas about what’s acceptable behavior for a family service, and while the service leader is a genuinely talented guy, he’s got his work cut out for him. He alternates between singing forcefully over the ever-present hum of minor chaos, stopping to teach (over that same hum), and giving children a chance to come up and lead parts of the service (still no pause in hum.) I find it, well, exhausting.
So, when Ella turned to me and whispered in my ear “Why eactly do you think services are fun?” I didn’t really know what to say.
“I guess I don’t,” I answered. “I like to do things that make it feel like shabbat. I like to stop and say thank you to God, and this is one way to do that.”
“Could we find another way?” she asked.
“Maybe we could come, I don’t know….later. You like kiddush, don’t you?”
We do like kiddush, not so much because of the food, (except for Zoe, who comes exclusively for the sprinkle-top cookies) but because lots of our friends are there, and we can sit together, and eat, and the kids can play, and it really does feel like shabbat. But somehow, it feels wrong to just come for kiddush, even though I suppose it’s just as integral a part of observing shabbat as prayer. (Is it wrong to just come for kiddush?)
So, I don’t have an answer for Ella yet. Can we find another way? I don’t want shabbat to be an endless series of “don’t”, which means that we need to find more “do’s”  and the name of my blog notwithstanding, not all of them can happen at home. Got any ideas for me?
ps, while mulling over this post last night I came across a great passage in the fanstastic book I’m reading – This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper.
Once, when I was old enough to ponder these things and young enough to think there might be credible answers, I whispered to Dad during Rosh hashanah services, “Do you believe in God?”
“Not really,” he said, “No.”
“Then why do we come here?”
He sucked thoughtfully on his Tums tablet and put his arm around me, draping me under his musty woolen prayer shawl, and then shrugged. “I’ve been wrong before,” he said.

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posted March 7, 2010 at 6:49 pm

I love, love, love that Jonathan Tropper quote.

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posted March 7, 2010 at 6:54 pm

oh, me too. do you think it’s a copyright infringement to put it on my blog.

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the Rebbetzin

posted March 7, 2010 at 8:14 pm

it’s a tough one. we struggle with this also.

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Rose Landowne

posted March 7, 2010 at 11:09 pm

You give him credit, and you plug his book. Why would it be a copyright problem?

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Edible Torah

posted March 7, 2010 at 11:27 pm

For a long long time I wrestled with this. Not just our kids’ discontent with the service, but with my own. There came a point where I knew I wasn’t engaging on any level. I felt that I had enough skills – I knew the service and could say the Hebrew with fluidity (if not fluency); I understood what I was doing in each moment; I knew before whom I stood. But I wasn’t feeling it.
At the time, I reasoned that it was because so much of my time was spent wiping noses, changing diapers, or taking someone in or out of the service. How, I asked myself, could I find a rhythm of kavannah with all that going on around me.
Then there came the day – a series of days actually – when I just took my two oldest (then 12 and 15) to a bunch of services. B’nai Mitzvot, evening services, etc. I was sitting with adults (or by myself). Nobody needed anything wiped, or changed, or held. And it still wasn’t working.
My daughters, who had been to Jewish summer camp, were equally dis-enchanted.
And then came the moment when one of them leaned over during the service and whispered “Can we go someplace where we can, you know, actually daven?”
It was a transformative moment.
Almost 3 years later, we are at a shul that is significantly more traditional than the one where we were. The service is longer. And mostly in Hebrew.
But my 6 year old and 9 year old have no problem sitting through a large part of that service, and then going down with either my wife or I to junior congregation. I chalk a large part of that up to the congregation. It’s billed as “traditional egalitarian”, which means we use an orthodox siddur, but men and women sit together, women lead as much (or more) as men in all parts of the service, and my kids are free to roam the sanctuary and sit next to (and be welcomed by) any of the congregants there. Nobody has a problem when my 9 year old goes up to the bima stands next to the Rabbi as he keeps tabs on the service leader (even with a Rabbi, we’re still lay-lead).
But that’s only part. I think another part is that the service BY ITSELF is more engaging. More parts are sung. There’s more variety to the melodies used. My daughters pointed out this week that we only do each prayer once – not 3 times where you have to read it in Hebrew and then say it in English and then sing it (often with a repeated chorus).
Maybe that’s just our speed. But I guess my point is that I wonder if there is a reason for you to “tough it out”. Maybe there’s a service out there that is just right.
I hope there is. And I hope you find it.
– Leon

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posted March 8, 2010 at 6:27 am

Leon-thanks so much for taking time to write such a thoughtful answer. There are many advantages to living in a small community, but a wide range of choices for where to daven is definitely not one of them. Anywhere else we would go would be a drive, and a fairly long drive at that. When I was a single adult living on the Upper West Side, I really did enjoy going to shul, so I suppose there’s hope for both me and my kids for the future, anyhow.

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posted March 8, 2010 at 11:40 am

first off, i really loved that quote from that book too. Jewish Book Council did a twitter-book-discussion on it in January.
onto the real comment – you are not alone in this – even I struggle with it and I have a big part in creating the services! Even I wish that there was a better way. I have a dream….
Have you considered creating your own Shabbat Chavurah? Can you find 2-3 other like minded families and ask the shul if you can have a small room to DIY and then be a part of the Torah service or just the kiddush? Can’t hurt to try – you might end up creating something magical…
P.S. Coming just for kiddush is WAY more than lots of people do. So if your idea of Shabbat is taking a nature walk and ending up at the shul just in time for kiddush, I’m all for it.

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posted March 8, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Building on Phylis’ thoughtful comments, I thought about the question “what would the difference be?”:
What would the difference be, if you and your family came into the room for kiddush energized, engaged, thoughtful, and spiritually connected? (versus the way you enter now)
What would the difference be if, on those weeks when you really really wanted to be in the family program (because of a speaker, or the drash subject, or the parsha, or to encourage another family, or whatever) you could ask your children who wouldn’t have an automatic (negative) response to your saying “we’re going to services this week” because it would be a change of pace rather than yet another slog through the siddur.
What would the difference be?
I also REALLY like the chavurah idea. I’ve been at two area synagogues that had an active “library minyan” – people who wanted to be part of the synagogue community, but needed something a different speed from the majority. In one, it’s called a “ruach service” and features more participatory moments for the entire group. In another, the service is shortened so that there is more time to focus on the parsha and group discussion and learning.
But you get the point.
Keep wrestling. The whole community will be strengthened in your efforts.
– Leon

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posted March 8, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Wow. I have the totally opposite experience, but we’re still at the Tot Shabbat (five and under). It’s a small enough group that the Rabbi is talking personally with each child, asking them what they’re thankful for, leading songs and dances and reading stories.
It sounds like either your service is trying to cater to too wide an age range, or the group is too big (or your rabbi just doesn’t understand/know how to deal with kids).
Who’s in charge of those services? Is there a parent committee that advises on content, length, acceptable behavior, etc? There is at our synagogue, and it’s really helpful. Not only does it help define the purpose of the services, it helps parents realize when there are different groups wanting really different things from the service, so they can either rotate the type/feel of it to meet different needs, or create separate havurot. Trying to be everything to every family/age range/child is just a disaster.
Good luck.

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posted March 8, 2010 at 6:02 pm

Well, I’m with you on the small community thing. We have one option, and that’s it. I believe there are lots of different theories of what a family service should be, and yours actually sounds fairly flexible from where I sit. Some are really geared toward making it fun for kids — ours, not so much. Our rabbi feels the point of the family service is to get the kids used to leading services, so that’s the service during the month that has the most Hebrew – is perhaps the most traditional (our congregation was Classical Reform, so we have an anti-Hebrew contingent for whom we have a lite-Hebrew service w/ Torah reading one Fri an month).
Anyway, I’ve developed a sort of compromise. I randomly chose 7 yrs old as the age to start attending services, and so I take my older 3 every week. Actually, the youngest of these got off the hook until he was nearly 8, because he just didn’t seem ready. Our older community doesn’t like to be out late, so oneg is at 5:15 & service is 6-7pm. The kids like the food, and usually like to spend some time with adults in the community. Then the 8 & 9 yr olds meditate, sleep, or play quietly with toys through the service, while my 11 yr old seems to pay more attention. They each enjoy getting up on the bima to lead their part, but are usually pretty eager to leave when it’s over. My 4 & 5 year olds stay home with their dad, who is not Jewish. He usually makes some sort of dinner while we’re gone (even if it’s just fries). So we hardly ever wind up having a nice, family Shabbat dinner. Sometimes, when there’s something special going on, I’ll bring the hubby & kids (like my two older kids & I are singing in the choir), but usually, they only get Sunday School & holiday events.
One of our challenges is that mine are the only kids who attend services – even family services. There are 3 others who are 9 & up, but their families have other priorities, so we often deal with, “Why doesn’t x come?”. Interestingly, though, I’m not sure if they’d be more into it if their friends came, or if the role model of kids who didn’t want to be there would be a negative thing, since now their role models are adults who are there because they want to be.
We have a Saturday service once a month, and I’ll usually take my oldest, and then decide on the fly which if either of the other 2 to take. Recently, my 9 yr old daughter wanted to do a sleepover on a Friday night, so we made a deal that she’d go to the next Sat. service to make up for it. I think it’s good for them to go sometimes so they get used to the Torah service, but then, like you, I don’t really want to force them either. At least Sat. service is followed by a kiddush so they have the food to which to look forward.
Well, I feel like I’ve babbled on enough, just wanted to say, that it’s not easy. I don’t think there is a great answer, and that we each need to come up with whatever seems to work best for our own family in our own community.
I want my kids to get the idea that this is a way to get calm, centered, & refocused at the end of the week, and that it’s important to feel that you’re part of your “Jewish family” by participating actively in it (and to help build that community). At the same time, they need to find what it does for them and not feel oppressed by the experience. A tightrope, of course!
I also love the quote – will have to check out that book when I get a chance!

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posted March 9, 2010 at 11:53 am

The core problem really resonates with me, and there are some great suggestions here. I echo the questions that Tzipporah raises about the shul you’re attending. The key is to make it a spiritual experience that works for both young kids and the grown ups in the room. It takes some skills, many of which can be learned. The Tot Shabbat Handbook (published by URJ Books and Music) is a great resource for anyone leading a service designed for young children and their parents. I wonder whether someone at shul already has it, and whether it can find its way into the hands of someone that can use it to make a difference?

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Mrs. G

posted March 9, 2010 at 6:13 pm

I think don’t go if no one likes it. My feeling is that early religious experiences should make kids feel like they are an active and welcome part of the service. They should first understand that it belongs to them, as much as it does to the adults. We are still in the Tot Shabbat stage but I love that my daughter begs to go to the synagogue and asks me every day if it’s Shabbat yet. It sounds like you have that with kiddush. Why not just stick with that until they are curious about the other parts?

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Jennifer in MamaLand

posted March 9, 2010 at 7:00 pm

I don’t love our shul’s anything… and consequently, I’m there most often for the kiddush.
BUT they do offer two class sessions with speakers: one from 10:10ish to 11:00 (during musaf in the main shul) and one from 11:00 to 12:00 noon (after musaf).
The classes are almost always packed, and then everybody comes together for kiddush. The nice thing is that because there are so many options, nobody realizes you’ve only just arrived five minutes before kiddush… they just assume you were in a different class. 😉
Hope you find your way! With long summer Shabbats coming, hopefully there are more “do’s” coming up: parks, long walks, seudah shlishit with friends, etc.

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Frume Sarah

posted March 10, 2010 at 11:41 am

It saddens me to hear people say that they “don’t like our shul’s anything.” What is it that we aren’t doing to connect with people? Help us understand what we NEED to be doing better so that we can continue to serve the People Israel.

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Frume Sarah

posted March 10, 2010 at 11:48 am

Before I came on staff at our shul, I was “just” a parent of young kids. A very UNSUCCESSFUL “Tot Shabbat” program had been retired for some time. I approached the leadership with a proposal to reinvent a Shabbat experience that would meet the needs of our families. I spoke with each and every family in our shul in order to determine what those needs really were rather than just assume those needs.
Our Tot Shabbat program has been a wonderful success these past 5 years mostly due to the extensive background work done before we had our first Shabbat. It was time well spent.
As a rabbi, it would surprise no one that I take prayer very seriously. Teaching our kids to be comfortable in a worship service IS important. But my goal for this age is to help our kids view shul as THEIR home. Eating together is something we do in community and if that is the motivation, gei geszunte hei. Our Tot Shabbat Oneg is very kid-friendly with juice boxes, Goldfish, etc.

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