American Orthodoxy

What role should young children play in the post-COVID synagogue?

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Yaakov Jaffe



In a recent article on this website, Judah Kerbel posed the question of whether the role of young children in the Orthodox synagogue should change after the end of COVID (may it arrive speedily). As synagogues ponder a reboot or adjustment to the way they conduct business after an unusual year, they might experiment or rethink parts of the synagogue experience, and what our children do in shul is something being rethought and revisited.

Though I have traveled to precious few shuls in the last twelve months, and so have little first-hand knowledge of what children still short of bar and bat mitzvah have been doing through this year for shul, my impression from speaking to others and from reading blog posts is that they haven’t attended shul as much as they have in the past. Most shuls were closed for three months, and many shuls have sadly not welcomed children back yet because of severe attendance limits since they have been reopened in June. Shul youth groups have not met, and many families have kept their children home from shul out of an abundance of concern.

So if children have not attended regular services for months, what happens when vaccination rates allow children to attend again? Do we, as Orthodox Jews, go back to what we’ve done in past years, or is it a time for a change?

The Problem

The final hour of the typical American Modern Orthodox Shabbat morning tefilah is largely inaccessible for elementary school age children. The Haftarah shares prophetic or hortatory messages using poetic Biblical Hebrew, full of content that children and often their parents may have never studied. After a prayer for the Exilarch and for Jewish Martyrs, the Torah is returned to the ark with song and much fanfare. The rabbi’s sermon is next, followed by the silent Shemoneh Esrei and the lengthy repetition, culminating in the announcements before arriving at Ein Keloheinu and the conclusion of prayers. Most parents determine that few elementary school age children have the attention span to maintain the decorum required to remain in shul for this long stretch, and so they conclude that bringing their children to the actual services is not an option.

Many congregations have the solution to sequester the children away from services for this entire time, in age-appropriate youth groups which might review the parshah, recite some basic tefilot, and maybe eat a lollipop or play a game among similar-age peers. But this approach poses a second problem. For many hard-working adults, Shabbat is the one day parents have time to spend with children, and if parents spend roughly 25% of their Shabbat waking hours in shul, separating children from their parents deprives parents of valuable time they would want to spend with their children. Moreover, the idea of the youth-groups approach presupposes that group leaders are trained, and youth programs are worthy, well-thought-out, valuable ways for kids to spend their time. Unfortunately, not every congregation is so blessed to have programs of this quality. This is a second strike against the model of bringing children to shul for the adults to daven and the children to have groups. It should not surprise us, then, that parents may question, in the post-COVID era, why children are being brought to shul in the first place. They might prefer the way things are for many families now, where the entire family davens together Shabbat morning at home, without groups, and without shul.

Other congregations had a different solution in the pre-COVID world, bringing children to participate just at the end of tefilah, after the end of the Musaf repetition. Yet, this contains additional problems beyond just the question of decorum and attention span. First, the ideas and philosophical concepts of the “end of tefilah songs” are surely beyond the understanding of any elementary school child. Few adults could even explain what is meant philosophically by “Moshav Yekaro Ba-Shamayim” (His precious Seat is in the heavens), or “Se’ar Roshekha Be-Seivah Ve-Shaharut” (the Hair of [G-d’s] Head is white and also black), let alone children! Also, were the end of tefilah prayers part of the mandatory service or part of the Tanakh, we might understand the urgency of asking children to participate – but many of them are late editions to the prayer service, with Adon Olam written in 11th century Spain, and Anim Zemirot in 12th century Germany. Third, the language of these tefilot is not accessible to an early elementary school child, just beginning to learn Hebrew (think “Kevutzotav Taltalim Shehorot” or “Goraleinu Ke-khol Hamonam”). Many prayers are written in easy Hebrew; the ones at the end of davening are not. 

The flip side of the problem

It should be clear, however, that leaving parents and children at home for Shabbat morning services is also not a viable option. Communal prayer allows parents the opportunity for Tefilah Be-Tzibur and hearing Keriyat Ha-Torah. Even if the exigencies of earning a living warrant davening at home during the week, there is hardly a justification for a Jewish adult to forgo communal prayer and public Torah reading each Shabbat indefinitely.

Moreover, whatever we do with our children now trains them for what their adult Judaism will look like. Keeping children at home (because they cannot manage being in shul) while young, becomes a powerful habit of mind and routine that will continue even as they grow older and could theoretically manage being in shul – understanding the more complex prayers, learning from the rabbi’s sermon, and being inspired through praying with others. The short term decision to daven at home with one’s children carries long term effects as those children will always think of Shabbat morning as “a time to daven at home” instead of “the time we all go to shul.” We cannot have our younger generation develop the pattern of mind that shul is not for them, as this expectation is not likely to change as they mature into their teen and young adult years.

A solution

I would humbly submit a workable, though outside-the-box, solution for parents of young children to put into effect now, or if not now at least when COVID ends. It involves arriving at shul earlier (for the “opening bell” or “first pitch”), an easy task for young children who are usually awake by the time davening begins. Elementary school children wake up early, so the chances are better than not that they can be ready for an 8:30 or 9 am start time.

It makes more sense to bring children to the beginning of the tefilah so they can recite the prayers they are more likely to know from school, such as Ashrei and Shema, and for older kids the Amidah, than it does to bring them only for the end. Children are also highly adaptable and are able to understand and access the meaning of the adult prayers. But it happens that the most accessible prayers are the ones in the first hour of shul and not the last hour – so the solution is to bring the children at the start (and then either go to groups or to return home) and not at the end of tefilah.

Recall that most elementary school students do daven each day without their parents in school – but recite a very different prayer service and prayer order than the end of the tefilah prayers that children are likely to attend on Shabbat. If we want children to understand what is going on and participate in the regular congregational framework, we should bring them to shul when the adults are reciting the prayers they are used to from during the week. A parent can simultaneously recite the prayers with the congregation’s pace and with their child at the start of davening with little difficulty. Moreover, the demands for decorum are smaller at the start of davening than at the conclusion. With no rabbi’s speech or announcements, and a shorter kedushah – there are more opportunities for parents to speak to their kids, respond to their needs, or take them from shul if needed. A child singing the Shema out loud during Shaharit as they do in school is much more palatable to the entire congregation than a child singing out loud during the silent Musaf Amidah.

A parent will have already completed their Biblical obligation of Shema, and will have participated in one iteration of tefilah be-tzibur for Shabbat after the end of Shaharit. It would be easy to return home with one’s child at that juncture if the child has reached the end of their attention span and there are no high quality groups available. Yes, the adult may miss the kiddush or the rabbi’s discourse, but being able to daven Shabbat morning in shul with your child is surely worth it. If there are groups, the children can remain in groups until after the end of tefilah, skipping Anim Zemirot and its challenging vocabulary entirely.

Some illustrations

What does it look like to daven the regular prayers with your child at the start of davening? One needs to find the opportunities in the adult tefilah where it is easy to engage the child’s attention. It doesn’t have to be every second, but there are opportunities nearly once in each paragraph to find a way to include your child.

There are four ways a young child can be engaged in the tefilah: by participating in a call and response refrain, by singing a catchy song, by understanding the meaning of a simple prayer if the concepts are accessible even if the Hebrew is not, or by self-translating the simple Hebrew of a basic prayer. There are numerous ways to do this at the start of tefilah, for the first 30 minutes of davening, but fewer at the end in Mussaf and the ending songs. Here are a few suggestions:

Act out with your children those prayers that are easily acted out as a way to convey the meaning: point to the appropriate article of clothing (clothes, belt, hat, and shoes) when reciting the morning blessings (based on Berakhot 60b). Point to your mouth, eyes, ears, lips, eyes, hands, legs, nose, knees, back, heart, stomach, kidneys when the body parts are listed in the long Hallelujah before Hodu and in Nishmat. Act out the musical instruments of the fifth Hallelujah: Shofar, Kinor (string instruments), Tof (drums), Nevel (woodwind instrument), Minim (flute), Mitzaltayim (cymbals).

Enable your child to translate the parts of davening that are easy to translate. Some parents might feel more comfortable than others translating into English while in the midst of tefilah,[1] but 2nd or 3rd graders can probably translate most of the words in these prayers on their own without adult help:

Most of the words of the third Hallelujah are easy to translate for most younger children, and a parent can recite this prayer with their son or daughter word for word, as does the beginning of Psalm 136, Hallel Ha-Gadol. If your child has learned the first chapter of Bereishit in school in second grade, then they should know the translations of these words already.

The lengthy earlier Hallelujah and the second half of Hallel Ha-Gadol (Hodu La-shem) each contain long sections praising God for the Exodus from Egypt using Hebrew words most children know: Mitzrayim, Paroh, Yisrael, Yad, Yam Suf, Midbar.

Our tefilot were often composed with the intention of using a “call and response;” in these tefilot the adult recites the content, and the child repeats the recurring refrain. Even if the child cannot understand what each word of the prayer means, they can still learn what their refrain or response means.

When reciting the lengthy chapter of “Ki Le-Olam Hasdo” have your 1st grader reply “Ki Le-Olam Hasdo” after you recite each verse. When concluding the long Hallelujah have your child respond “Barkhu et Hashem” after listing each group which will praise God.

Similarly, have your child recite the word “Barukh” each time it appears in Barukh She’amar, as you reply with the descriptions of G-d, or Hashem’s name as it appears at the end of the 1st Hallelujah.

Many of the earlier prayers have been turned into short songs which you can sing with your child:

Your child already knows some of the words from benching: “Yiru et Hashem… Kefirim Ra’ashu” from Le-David, “Poteiah et Yadekha” and “Tehilat Hashem” from Ashrei (if your child doesn’t already sing all of Ashrei in school).

Torat Hashem Temimah has a catchy melody; your child knows what the Torah is and so will understand the gist of the song even if not every word, as does “Tov Lehodot La-Shem” in Mizmor Shir for Shabbat.

Other more modern songs appear in the davening: Yehi Khavod has the chorus for the recent song “Hashem Melekh, Hashem Malakh, Hashem Yimlokh,” the 2nd Halellujah has the song “Shabehi;” (even if your child doesn’t know the words for the entire song, they will surely know the theme is “Yerushalayim”)

The goal of this essay is of course less to list all the opportunities for young children – as young as kindergarten – to participate in the early parts of the Shabbat morning davening, and more to highlight that they surely can have a role and can join their parents in prayer at least once in each paragraph, and in each minute of the first 30 minutes of davening. Parents often don’t take their children, arguing there is “nothing for them to do” at the start of davening. But hopefully we’ve demonstrated that this isn’t the case, and there are many ways a young child and his or her parent can share a lengthy, sustained, prayer experience even at the start of tefilah. The Halakhah is also clear that adults can fulfil their obligations of prayer even by reciting an abbreviated Pesukei De-Zimrah, and so even if they move at a slower pace than the congregation, they still fulfil their prayer obligations.

In my view, the themes of this essay apply at all times. Proper hinukh (education) of our children into adult mitzvah observance is always important, and I would advocate for young children to accompany their parents at the start of tefilah in all circumstances each week. If we want to train our children to be shul-goers, to come on time and to say all the words – we should start training them in this direction when they are still in elementary school, instead of waiting for bar and bat mitzvah to expect them to flip a switch and then start coming on time and saying each paragraph.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik would often note[2] , that the Torah conception of “hinukh,” Jewish education, is that children perform the same mitzvah actions that adults do as soon as they are ready. It doesn’t mean that children do mitzvot in parallel, or perform watered-down versions of mitzvot: it is that they should do the real thing. Shabbat morning tefilah is no different, and our youngest children should sit besides us reciting the very same prayers each Shabbat morning.

They all can do it. And we are selling our sons and daughters short if we think or tell ourselves that they can’t.

[1] Translating for your child involves the overlap of two questions – the question of prayer in translation and the question of what types of interruptions are permitted during the early stages of the prayers. On prayer in the vernacular, see Sotah 32a, Rambam and Ra’avad at Hilkhot Shema 2:10, Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 101:4, R. Akiva Eiger to Me’ilah 17b, Responsa Hatam Sofer 5:192-193, 6:84, Arukh Ha-Shulhan Orah Hayyim 62:3-4.

[2] See Reshimot Shiurim on Sukkah 42a

Yaakov Jaffe serves as the rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah, founded by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in 1963, and as the Dean of Judaic Studies at the Maimonides School. He received his ordination and doctorate from Yeshiva University, where he holds graduate degrees in Bible, Jewish History, and Jewish Education. He is the author of Isaiah and his Contemporaries, a commentary on Yeshayahu and the other Biblical books of that time, now available from Kodesh Press.