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I make a living singing, playing, teaching, and learning with Jewish munchkins in early childhood learning centers, temples, and JCCs. Sweet gig, right? Last year, I became a parent, too, and thus a participant in programs geared toward this demographic.
Equipped with academic training, a lifetime of experience in Jewish communal life, a career working with young Jewish families, and, now, a baby on my hip, I offer a few simple action steps synagogue leadership can take to improve the experience of your youngest congregants, to attract and retain family memberships, and to protect the future of the Jewish people.
The moment a small child starts to make noise, parents are likely to feel self-conscious as they try to balance the child’s needs, their own needs, and the expectations of the community. This is a great opportunity to model the inclusive and welcoming attitude toward which your congregations strives. When my baby cried at the URJ Biennial, my husband rushed her out of the room just as we heard Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who was delivering a sermon, say, “Now that’s a sound we want in our services! Glad you’re here!” Even a simple smile in the family’s direction can do the trick.
Once, as I was leaving synagogue and trying to load my baby, the stroller, and bunch of other stuff into my car in the pouring rain, the rabbi offered to hold the baby in the lobby while I packed the car and pulled it to the front door. This story speaks volumes: Practice what you preach and give people a reason to tell families that your shul really is friendly, welcoming, and worth joining.
Don’t ask a room full of infants to be quiet, and if you give a toddler something to hold, expect that it will go into his mouth. Don’t explain symbolic logic to 3-year-olds or ask abstract questions to Pre-K kids whose brains are simply not yet equipped for the task. Not confident about your knowledge of children’s development? Discuss it with an educator in your community who can provide some insight.
Show that your congregation is a welcoming place for families with young children by displaying kids’ books on a bookshelf in the lobby, in the sanctuary, and on the lowest bookshelf in office spaces. You can collect books by asking older children to donate books they no longer read. And don’t forget to tell everyone about PJ Library, which offers free Jewish books and music to young children.
Provide a changing table in restrooms accessible to all caregivers (not just in the ladies’ room). Keep a stepstool by the sinks to help children reach the faucet. You could even install a seat so parents can use the restroom without holding a child or putting them on the floor, like this child safety bathroom seat used by the St. Louis JCC.
A few easy steps will show that you’re considering the needs of your youngest community members. Take basic baby-proofing measures, such as covering outlets and frequently vacuuming floors (choking hazards are everywhere). You can even ask a few families to walk through your space and make kid-friendly suggestions. Take a photo of your efforts and post them to social media to spread the word that you’re creating a safe space.
Remember that growing bodies are not on the same schedule as the rest of your congregants. When planning programs for families with young children, ask about their naptimes and plan to end programming by 7:00 p.m. at the latest.
The 2014 Pew Report indicates that fewer 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 and heart and act with loving kindness.
A family’s choice to feed a baby from a breast or bottle is their own, so create space for them to do whatever they choose – in the way that they choose. Some parents prefer privacy when feeding, so offer a seat away from mainstream traffic. Make mothers feel at ease and provide a model for other congregants and visitors.
My heart breaks when families say they want to be involved in the Jewish community but can’t find one that fits their needs. This represents a breakdown between congregational leaderships’ intentions and attitudes and the impressions young families are getting from them. Our congregations are judged not by our intentions but by our actions. Taking a few easy steps may require a bit of time and intention, but it can reap incredible rewards for our communities.