Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Children in the Sanctuary: What’s Not to Like?!

Last Friday evening, November 4, we tried an experiment at Temple Beth El.  We had our usual First Friday night service (oneg Shabbat at 5:30, service at 6, adjourn with a “Shabbat Shalom” at 7 PM) but with a twist.

We specifically invited families with young children to the service (along with the usual attendees, who are mostly adults), offered a few more child-oriented foods on the oneg Shabbat table, and changed our service only slightly.  Our hopes were that we’d attract parents who’d like to offer their children a Shabbat experience that is geared toward them, and yet have a contemplative atmosphere that also addresses the spiritual needs of adults.

This is what happened.

At 6 PM, we began our service where the congregation was, in the Community Court, with songs and table blessings of candles and wine.  Then we led everyone into the Sanctuary while singing.  Then we began the service with readings and prayers, leading us up to the Sh’ma.  After everyone was seated again, I invited the young people, ages 8 and below, up to the bimah steps to listen to a story especially for them.

When the story concluded, teachers and assistants escorted those children out for 45 minutes of a special Shabbat activity: crafts, stories, and fun.  In the Sanctuary, the adults had 45 minutes of calm, quiet, and meditative worship, as well as a brief d’var Torah on the weekly portion of Lech Lecha.

At 7 PM we concluded the service, and, behold, there were the kids in the Community Court, finishing up the pre-service oneg Shabbat foods, and waiting quite patiently for their parents.  We also had some cookies for them as they exited.

What worked?  Most everything worked tremendously well.  We allowed our worshipers to have a peaceful experience.  We let our children have a fun Shabbat time at Temple.  And we had a larger congregation that night than many First Friday nights.

There were a few logistic kinks to be worked out, but the feedback from both parents with kids – and adults who came alone – was quite positive and upbeat.  It is definitely something to be replicated at our earliest opportunity.

It is crucial to stress that both adults and children felt comfortable in this worship environment, and that we hope that both of these groups join us in the future.

If you have ideas about this important facet of Jewish life, that is, attracting young kids to positive experiences at Temple, please comment on this event.

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