Guest Feature

‘Seriously, Stop With the Shushing’ article featured by Kveller is one of my personal fav sites for finding advice and ideas about Jewish life with littles. Of course, I’m honored when they publish my work and grateful that my work and ideas are able to reach a larger audience.

There are lots of good reasons to want to attend synagogue services with kids.

  • Typically, children accompany their parents when they go places- especially on nights and weekends, when the most ‘popular’ synagogue services are typically held.
  • It is the yahrtzeit of a loved one.
  • Kids are Jewish people who want to learn, listen, sing, and/or pray with the rest of the community.
  • Parents are Jewish people who want to learn, listen, sing, and/or pray with the rest of the community.
  • Parents (or kids) aren’t Jewish people but they love people who are Jewish and they want to learn, understand, experience and/or support and those people.

There are lots of good reasons that congregations want to encourage families to participate in their synagogue services with kids.

  • See all of the above points.
  • Synagogues want to attract members.
  • Synagogues want to be a resource for the community (for people of all ages and stages)

This is not an exhaustive list.

Early engagement of young children and their families is critical to sustaining a vibrant Jewish future.

Making those young children and families feel welcome in synagogue services- and not exclusively the ‘tot shabbat’ or similar type programs- is key to securing our communal continuity.  This issue is that big of a deal. There are several terrible reasons that families with kids struggle to feel welcome and able to comfortably and confidently navigate this experience- and one of the ones that is the easiest to assuage is to deal with the ‘shushers‘.

Read on to find out why and what you and your community can do to deal with this issue.

 Seriously, Stop With the Shushing!

This article was originally published by Kveller here.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and bet that, whenever you were most recently at synagogue, you witnessed someone shushing, eye-rolling, audible sighing, or glaring at another person during services.

And if you have small kids, I’m going to take this a step further and bet that this behavior was directed at you or your offspring.

But I’m here to say that this needs to be stopped. Finished. Shut down, once and for all. And, to be clear, I’m talking about the shushing and the sighing, and not — repeat: not — the noises that elicit such behavior.

Shushing isn’t kind, and it isn’t respectful. And the consequences can be dire. It seems to me that most of the people doing the shushing hardly think about the choice that they are making — but I can confidently assert that the ones being shushed are deeply affected by these expressions. Such behaviors are negatively impacting Jewish continuity — and, yes, it is that big of a deal.

I just finished an enormous research project about engaging families with young children through Shabbat services. I was startled by how many synagogue leaders are investing time and money in order to attract young families — and then these families are alienated by members of the community.

In interviews, I heard about how it was the seemingly small details that dictate a family’s decision to participate. For example, a stool in the bathroom, so children could reach the sink, was an authentic signal that the community recognizes and accommodates the needs of young children. A shush from a congregant when a child whispered too loudly at services, however, felt like a harsh judgement — and, ultimately, and indication to a family that their presence was not warmly welcomed.

Let’s run through some of the scenarios in which a person might cast a passive-aggressive expression to another during a synagogue service. And let’s consider possible reasons that the disturbance occurred (beyond he or she or they are simply “rude”).

Did you hear the ‘ding’ of a phone or device?
Maybe that person is getting a notification that an organ has become available for transplant that will save their life. Perhaps they are waiting on an update from their child’s school about a critical test.

Someone digging through their purse or pocket, making crinkling sounds?
Could they be attempting to open a bottle of medication, struggling because of their arthritis? Or maybe they are hard of hearing, reaching to adjust the volume of their hearing aid but totally unaware of the sounds they create.

Little kids babbling? Baby crying? Child talking?
The adult accompanying them is entirely aware that this is happening and is trying hard to navigate the circumstance. Perhaps the dad knows that removing the child will likely result in the whispers elevating to a scream as they are carried out. Maybe the mom holding the whimpering baby needs to say kaddish because she birthed multiples, but the baby’s sibling didn’t make it. The child might have special needs or sensory processing challenges that make it impossible for you to imagine his or her experience.

Are any of these scenarios true? Honestly, I don’t know. But here’s the thing: neither do you. So instead of shushing or sighing, think about how you’d be sensitive and supportive to a person with any of these circumstances, and then treat every person with such lovingkindness. Too many people are being turned off to synagogue life because a vocal minority of members are (unintentionally, I think) sending a message that they are unwelcome.

To be sure, I’m not suggesting that we just let mayhem fly during communal worship experiences. If there is a significant distraction that might be emerging into a pattern, please thoughtfully and sensitively address it with the leadership of your community. (Ideally, don’t do it directly after the service, or when you are still actively annoyed.) Remember that the synagogue’s leadership is not responsible for whatever distraction occurred, but they are a resource to help find a solution.

Welcoming others, along with the noises they may make, is an easy call to action. There is no money required, no board approval to petition. All you have to do is stop with any and all attempts to control other people’s behavior in synagogue that are anything less than entirely respectful, kind, and supportive. (Except, of course, your own family members — in that case, rule them however you see fit, and good luck!). As my toddler would say: “You worry about your own self.”

So, please, model the behavior you’d like others to display.

Do it because you can remember a time when you were a vulnerable member of the community and didn’t perfectly align with the expectations of the others.

Do it because the Torah teaches us to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Do it because the Talmud says, “all of Israel is responsible for one another.”

Do it because babies are adorable, and you want them to return because your synagogue can’t sustain itself financially unless it attracts new members.

Go ahead and choose one of these reasons, or find another that resonates more. But whatever you do, motivate yourself to show respect and kindness, even in moments of distraction or frustration.

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