As our gathering places have continued to open and a next normal emerges, many new parents hope to introduce their young children to sacred Jewish life after a period of isolation. The fact that you are here and reading this article displays an excellent step in the right direction, as you are seeking to learn how to meet the needs of the new generation whose lives began in various degrees of seclusion.
I hope that the adults who make up the majority of our Jewish institutions will find ways to support new Jewish families as they vulnerably trek their tiny children into their sanctuaries. The grown-ups that bring, or consider bringing their little ones to congregational services are likely nervous. Nobody wants to be the parent with the screaming baby or talkative toddler.
Fleeing from the sanctuary with a screaming toddler? I’ve been there
I can’t forget the stomach-flipping shame I felt as a mom booking it out of the sanctuary- clinging to a noisy, flopping toddler, desperate to disappear. I’m grateful to report that in my experience, that shame was entirely internally sourced. My communities have shown me grace, and patience, and have been understanding, as I believe most will.
I survived that terrifying moment and rejoined the service shortly thereafter.
In addition to my interests in promoting positive experiences for my three kiddos, I make a joyful living by singing, playing, teaching, and learning with Jewish kids and grownups in early childhood learning centers, temples, and JCCs (sweet gig, right?).
Equipped with a brain full of academic training, a lifetime of experience in Jewish communal life, and a career working with young Jewish families while holding my own kids on my hip, I would like to offer a few simple suggestions.
These are action steps you and your synagogue leadership can take to improve the experience of your youngest congregants, attract and retain family memberships, and encourage the future of Jewish people as a whole.
Disclaimer: Just a few uncomfortable experiences for a family with a young child can turn them away from Jewish life altogether. Life cycle events like the birth of a child can be great motivators to engage in Jewish life, so we should capitalize on this instinct by making their experience warm, welcoming, and fun.
8 Helpful Ways to Make Young Families Feel Welcome
1. When little ones cry, respond with grace
The moment a small child starts to make noise, it is likely that the child’s parent feels uncomfortably self-conscious. They are likely trying to balance their own needs, the needs of their child, and the expectations of the community. Your congregation won’t ignore it, so neither should you. In fact, this could be a great opportunity to model the inclusive and welcoming attitude towards which you strive. It could simply be that you smile in the child’s direction.
While my family was at the URJ Biennial in Orlando in 2015, my baby cried and while her dad rushed her out of the (giant) room, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, delivering a sermon, said “Now THAT is a sound we want in our services! Glad you are here!” Once, a man shushed my baby during a Torah service as she babbled happily, and at least a dozen people immediately turned and shushed him for shushing her! That minyan became my favorite. I have seen service leadership walk up to a child, outreach arms, and snuggle the child under a tallit while leading prayer. Other leadership might remark “Wow! A different kind of singing is filling our sanctuary!” You can do this in a way that is comfortable for you- but ignoring it isn’t helping anyone.
2. Smile and offer to help!
Ask parents about their children and greet them by name. Make yourself available to lend a hand if needed.
One of my most memorable moments was with a client I love. I was at work (which for me meant I was also a guest in a synagogue) and I was trying to load my car with my baby, the stroller, and all of the musical props I carry, all while it was raining.
The Rabbi noticed and offered to hold the baby in the lobby while I packed my car and pulled it to the front door. This experience speaks volumes. Give people a reason to tell families that your shul is going to be a good fit when they are looking to join.
3. Cultivate developmentally appropriate expectations
Can you picture this scene? The congregation is in worship, then as the communal recitation concludes, the small voice of a child is heard, asking their grown-up about something in a non-whisper. It is very distracting, certainly not ideal… but also totally age-appropriate.
To me, it is an indication of success if a child turns to their grown up and asks a question during services. The child is demonstrating that they are actively engaged in the experience and taking ownership of their learning as they process their experience by posing questions. Asking a question is an incredibly appropriate (and very Jewish) thing for a child to do.
I’m not suggesting that the child be encouraged to have full volume discussions during davening, but simply that other adults refrain from reacting much to squirms, giggles, or similar childish behavior during services when they come from children. They are quite literally acting their age.
4. Prominently display and share a library of children’s books
In the back of the pews, on a child’s bookshelf in the sanctuary, in the lobby, on the lowest bookshelf in the office spaces…make it very clear that they are available. Your local PJ Library can help you source books, or you can collect books to fulfill this purpose by asking older children to donate books they no longer read. You could make a social media post or put it in your newsletter, which is another way to spread the word that you are actively seeking to create a welcoming place for families with young children.
5. Address potty problems
Provide a changing table in restrooms accessible to caregivers of all genders. Keep a stepping stool by the sinks to help children reach the faucet. When I did my doctoral research on Tot Shabbat, I had multiple families tell me that a thoughtfully place stool fueled their decision to join a particular congregation. If you REALLY want to impress people, install a seat so that parents can use the potty without holding a child or putting them on the floor, like this Potty Seat.
6. Safety first!
Take basic “baby proofing” measures. I’m not suggesting that parents don’t need to watch their little ones, but you can take a few very easy, basic steps that will show that you are thinking about the needs of your youngest community members.
- Consider food allergies (1 in 13 children have potentially fatal food allergies).
- Cover your outlets
- Vacuum your floors often (choking hazards are everywhere).
- Install a baby gate in a child-friendly room so that parents can relax and talk in a space where they know their child is safe.
You could even ask a few families to walk through your space and make suggestions for improvement. Again, you want the word to spread that you are hoping to welcome young families. Take a photo of the covered outlets and post it on your social media page. Spread the word that you are creating a safe space.
7. Reduce your assumptions
Families come in all shapes and sizes. According to the 2014 Pew Report, less than half of today’s children live in “traditional” families. Physical, emotional, spiritual, and cognitive abilities develop differently for every person. So open your mind, open your heart, and act with loving kindness.
8. Let babies eat with no judgment or restrictions
A family’s choice to feed a baby from a breast or bottle is their own, so create space for them to do so in whatever way they choose. Support breastfeeding. You can offer acceptance and support by smiling, making eye contact, and generally acting like you would if the mom was eating a meal herself. Some parents prefer privacy when feeding (some babies are so distractible that it can be challenging for them to eat well in a busy room). Offer them a seat away from mainstream traffic.
If a private space is available that caregivers can use, let them know- but be careful not to give the impression that they need to remove themselves, but that you are simply sharing an option. You will make caregivers feel at ease and provide a model for other congregants and visitors. Your support will be noticed and appreciated by mothers and families throughout your community, and they will tell others about the warm and welcoming atmosphere.
My heart breaks when I hear families tell me that they want but don’t have a Jewish community that fits their needs.
We can do better. Perhaps even more heartbreaking is the fact that I have literally never been told by any congregational leadership that babies and toddlers are unwelcome, but there is a terrible breakdown between the intention and attitude of congregational leadership and the impressions of young families.
We are not judged by our intentions, only by our actions.
The responsibility of engaging the youngest members of our community and their caretakers is upon us. We need to work toward ensuring that our leadership, facilities, and programming leaves a welcoming and lasting impression on families, avoiding the negative experiences of a glaring congregant or a loud, embarrassing “shush” directed towards a kid. These steps take a bit of time and effort but will reap incredible rewards.
If your community is working towards growing its congregation and engaging families with young children, I’d love to help. I offer consultations to launch or upgrade your efforts to engage children and their families. Book a quick connection call to discuss your concerns or book a consultation so we can jump into addressing them: