Last Yom Kippur, when I was tired and overwhelmed by the day, I began a sermon that I knew needed my full attention and yours. The joyful noise of an unidentified toddler competed for that attention, and I did something I have never done before: I stopped and asked for the baby to be quieted.
I fielded more comments on that moment than any other I have made from the pulpit—which is saying a lot, given the nature of my pulpit remarks. To a person, they were supportive, and they were mostly accompanied by a further elucidation on the behavior of other children at other times. It was as if the floodgates had been opened.
And so, during these months of my sabbatical, when I will be unavailable to discuss the contents of my bulletin messages, I am devoting some ink to the question of decorum. I ask you to read carefully and to read with the community in mind, not your own personal situation or preferences. These words are an attack on no one. They are, I hope, common sense for everyone.
First of all, and most important, children are welcome in the synagogue, including the sanctuary. We expect them to act like children, not like miniature adults. We hope to nurture their comfort in Jewish surroundings and to make them feel at home in the synagogue. Mostly, their play is delightful.
Second, children in the synagogue are their parents' responsibility. When we have prearranged age-appropriate activities for them, we will take responsibility for them. When no such activities are scheduled, then children must be directly supervised by a parent or someone specifically designated to take responsibility for them. This requirement applies not only to toddlers and young children, but to pre-teens as well who should not be unaccompanied anywhere in or out of the building. It is not the responsibility of ushers or anyone in the pulpit to interrupt services for a misbehaving child, and other than an emergency, no adult should intervene with anyone else's child.
Third, we expect adults to act like adults. Goodness, you know if your child is disturbing others, even if you have developed the ability to tune out the noise. If you cannot quickly calm your child, do him or her the favor of finding a better place to be. The Hazzan and I are flattered that you don't want to miss what's going on, but those disturbances diminish other peoples' ability to focus. Likewise, if a child's activities are disturbing you, be an adult: say something polite and direct to the parents. There is no comfortable way to say it—as you witnessed on Yom Kippur—but the alternative is to simply bear with it. "I'm really sorry to say it, but your baby's wonderful chatter is making it hard to hear the service," ought to be all you need to say. If the parent is offended at a polite comment, it is no longer your problem.
I love children and welcome them to shul. I hope you will bring your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews when you come and allow us all to share in the wonder and delight in the next generation of Jewish community.