Welcoming Families with Young Children into the Synagogue this Weekend

©Alan Novick

By Anna Hartman, Rachel Mylan and Jenna Turner

In a world of challenge and trauma, how incredible it is to be a part of a community. As early childhood educators, we look at the world through the lens of children and families, and through that lens we see how community nurtures children’s growth in love and with purpose. This Shabbat our community will show our love and support for Pittsburgh and for one another by coming together in synagogues across the United States.

We know that across the country, clergy, educators, and other key professionals are working nonstop to ensure that they are holding their communities through this difficult time. With young children and families in mind, we humbly offer a few things that synagogues and families might consider as they enter the sanctuary together.

First, parents as individuals feel the impact of the tragedy in Pittsburgh. We know from social science research that parents need to process their own emotions before discussing the tragedy with their children so that when they speak to their children they can convey a message that the children are safe. If adults have not sorted out their feelings, they can inadvertently traumatize the children.

Second, many parents who will bring their children to synagogue on Shabbat are still deciding whether or not to tell their young children about the shooting. These parents may cry and grieve in front of their children while their children still have not heard from them what has happened. Parents may allow their younger children to play quietly with toys while the rabbi speaks, mistakenly assuming that the children do not understand.

What synagogues can do:

  1. Keep reaching out to your families! Continue to kindly nudge them to process their feelings and remind them that you are here for them. Work with local early childhood and/or family educators to develop additional ways to be supportive. Families are bombarded with resources, and thus when a trusted educator or rabbi makes meaning and offers curated resources, these communications are extremely valuable and meaningful.
  2. Reach out in advance to families who are attending the service to let them know how the subject will be addressed in synagogue. Advise them to speak with their children about the events in advance of the service and to let the children know that they may see people being sad in synagogue and that it is ok to be sad.
  3. Promote a family service and/or babysitting services as an alternative. In the main sanctuary, confine frank remarks to certain moments during the service with a warning so that parents can escort their children out of the service for a special activity or story elsewhere.
  4. Remind parents that young children understand far more than adults think they do – children notice changes in behaviors and tone and they need the adults in their lives to help them process and feel safe. Despite the difficulty, we believe that talking to children is preferable to avoiding the topic or inadvertently exposing it to them suddenly at synagogue.
  5. Offer children a sense that our community is bursting with goodness and people who love and care for them. Offer them an opportunity to make the world a better place. For children, that can be about bringing more love and kindness into their everyday lives. Putting things into a perspective that is comforting and offering a sense of empowerment are two developmentally appropriate ways that children can make sense of the event. In this way, being together for a Shabbat of solidarity has the potential to be an experience that is uplifting for all.

May God bless the families affected by the tragedy in Pittsburgh, may we continue to honor the lives of those who perished, and may we as a community merit to raise another generation in love and with purpose.

Anna Hartman is the Director of Early Childhood Excellence at the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF) and the Director of the Paradigm Project, a grassroots network of Jewish early childhood educators. Rachel Mylan is the Program Director for Jewish Education and Engagement at JUF. Jenna Turner is the Director of Early Childhood Professional Learning at JUF. The authors wish to acknowledge advice on this topic that they received from colleagues Mara Bier, Ellen Dietrick, Meir Muller, and Rachel Rapoport.