It’s a typical winter Shabbat morning in Massachusetts. The temperatures have plummeted outside, and we are all gathered together for the morning service in our sanctuary. As soon as services end and the adults leave the room, the children take over.
After services, our shul’s sanctuary often becomes a playground. Children run up and down the aisles and crawl under chairs. On this particular morning, Jon and Hannah, our four-year-old children, ascend the bimah. Jon proclaims that he is the rabbi of his school. Hannah, taken with this idea, announces that she is the rabbi of our shul. Together, they wrap a tallit around themselves and take turns “davening” [praying] out of the large siddur while slightly older boys play tag around them. We watch them from the back of the sanctuary, filled with delight.
But not everyone is delighted— another member of the shul, concerned at the sight of the bimah as a play space, asks the children to go elsewhere. It’s a story as old as time (or as old as the eruv): children in shul.
And, as stories go, it’s not hard to empathize with everyone. Unlike many conflicts, this is one in which many of us have actually lived both sides. Children can be loud and disruptive. Their intense energy can be distracting. And, let’s be honest, as parents, we often fall short. We may let our kids run down the aisle for a lollipop during the kedusha service or the sermon. We don’t always take our crying children out fast enough. And, despite our best efforts, we sometimes leave a mess.
But children and young families are also the beating heart of a community. They signify vibrancy, continuity, and life. Young parents make enormous financial compromises to live in Jewish communities. Understandably, they want their children to be acknowledged for the cute little communal assets they are.
Decades of educational research demonstrate that to build sustainable communities, children need the opportunity to explore and play in the real world spaces where adult community happens. This sort of learning is what education scholars Lave and Wenger (1991) famously called, “legitimate peripheral participation,” the necessary elements for learning how to be in a community of practice. Lave and Wenger’s work sparked an educational movement called “situated learning” premised on the idea that children need to get out of the classroom and into the “real world.” Math education researcher, Jo Boaler found that students learn more when they get the chance to solve real world problems rather than formulaic, text-book problems. History education researcher, Sam Wineburg, found that the best way to teach history is to give students real historical problems and let them think them through like historians do.
Indeed, our research and experience in Tanakh classrooms suggest that even very young students learn best when their classes avoid prepackaged answers and instead allow students to grapple with the texts like adult learners do. These bodies of research all point in the same direction: Children don’t need to be spoon-fed material; they need to find their own meaning in the world.
For Jewish communities, this means that children need a seat at the Shabbat table where they can hear their parents recite kiddush and, once they are ready, recite it on their own. They need to take responsibility for holding the candle and passing the spices at havdalah. And, they need to the chance to climb up on the bimah in the main sanctuary, put on a tallit, and play rabbi. These experiences show them that we trust them, we respect them as members of the community, and that we hope that they will, one day, join the community as adults.
Spaces that are just for children, such as children’s groups, are an incredible resource for shul communities. But we shouldn’t relegate our children to the basement. If our hope is to fully prepare our children to be adult members of our Jewish communities, then they need access to sacred adult spaces as well.
At 12:35pm on a winter Shabbat, two four-year-olds playing rabbi on the bimah is no sign of disrespect — rather, it is an educational imperative. If we teach children that they are not welcome in the sanctuary, that will be the lesson they internalize. If, instead, we celebrate their attempts to “daven” from the bimah, we are paving the way for their leading from the bimah years down the line.
Ziva R. Hassenfeld, Ph.D, is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Dev Tech Research Group of Tufts University and at the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. Ziva earned her doctorate in Curriculum and Teacher Education from Stanford University in 2016. She lives with her family in Boston, MA.
Amy Newman has been a teacher of Judaic Studies in day school for every grade, K-12. She has an Ed.M. in Learning and Teaching from Harvard Graduate School of Education and is a part-time student at Yeshivat Mahart, in their executive ordination track. She lives with her family in Boston, MA.