Everyone Belongs Here

Though he published it a couple of years ago now, for some reason I only recently encountered Rabbi Menahem Creditor’s article at Huffington Post entitled “Children in the Sanctuary.” Rabbi Creditor’s article reflects on occasions when he observed a child crying or making noise in a synagogue service. On several occasions, Rabbi Creditor observed a congregant telling a child’s parent that the child should be removed and saying, “‘perhaps your child doesn’t belong in synagogue.'” He calls these “the least synagogue-ish” words he has ever heard.

He’s right. But it’s not only children.

If a synagogue (which comes from the Greek roots syn, meaning “together,” and agein, “to lead” or “to draw”)–in Hebrew, bet knesset, a house of assembly–is to be what it says it is, it needs to be able to draw together everyone. And children aren’t the only ones for whom synagogue decorum does something other than draw them in.

Let’s do a thought experiment, shall we? Imagine a large-ish–say, 700 families or so–suburban synagogue during a Shabbat service. There might, at a busy time, be 200 people in the service. In the 2010 census, a little less than 20% of the U.S. population was under the age of 14. A little more than 13% of the U.S. population was over the age of 65. (Don’t take my word for it: demographics here.) About .23% of children born will have a cerebral palsy diagnosis (check here). There seems to be no end to the statistical weirdness surrounding autism–five years ago it was something like 0.5% of all children would receive a diagnosis of autism, and now it seems like 2% of all children receive that diagnosis. (I’m going to let you Google that, against my better judgment. There’s just too much happening.) In fact, as of 2010 18.7% of the U.S. population had some sort of disability, and about 2/3 of that group–12.6% of the U.S. population–had a severe disability. (Statistics here.)

So, perhaps two people in the synagogue have an autism diagnosis (though you actually might have more than that, since there’s much more diagnosis of it in children than in adults). Maybe one person has cerebral palsy. But, more to the point, you might expect as many as twenty-five people in the room to have some kind of “severe” disability–one that makes it very difficult or impossible to engage in an activity of daily living. This could be related to sight, or the ability to stand, or walk, or use stairs. It could be related to hearing. It could be related to cognition.

And of course there are those who have no diagnosed disability, but who simply have a difficult time with daily living, which can be related to age or infirmity.

Do you tell the person who has continence problems and needs to use the restroom several times during the service, causing some level of disturbance to those around them, to sit down or not come to synagogue? Do you tell the person whose partner is in a wheelchair that you’re holding the aisle seat for someone, forcing these two people to find somewhere else to sit? Do you tell the caregiver for the congregant with cerebral palsy, who does not speak but makes sounds during the service, to please take the person outside because he’s disturbing you? Do you tell the parent of an autistic child that the child’s movement of her hands distracts you, and could they please move somewhere else?

You just said no, right, because I just made it seem really bad for you to do so? Of course, you know people have done all of these things.

If you think the the parent of the “average” child, who is occasionally disruptive but needs to be there because their parents have prioritized Jewish life, is made to feel unwelcome when told to take the child out because the child is noisy, can you imagine how unwelcoming the synagogue environment is to those with disabilities?

Now, I made it sound as though the person who asks that child or a person with a disability  leave is just a horrible, terrible person. And sometimes that’s true. But mostly it’s not true. Mostly it’s not intentional harm–it’s just insensitivity, or cluelessness, or a failure to notice the environment, or a lack of empathy. (Not that any of this makes the person harmed feel better, of course. But it’s not the case that people are uniformly wicked when they act in these ways, and education helps remedy the insensitive behavior–not the intentionally harmful behavior.)

I think, in part, we have a decorum problem. We have become accustomed to synagogue life being a follow-the-page-numbers, “recite when asked to, sing when appropriate, and otherwise stay silent” affair.

Where do these expectations for decorum in a synagogue service come from, anyway? In all likelihood, Reform Judaism importing in the standards of its largely bourgeois, Protestant and Catholic neighbors in Germany. At some point, this standard–one where we are all to be on the same page, reciting in unison or sitting silently while someone on a stage speaks–found its way into most other varieties of Judaism in the United States. (It’s less common in Orthodox synagogues, and unsurprisingly so–the early Reform movement’s intent was to smooth over some of the chaos and idiosyncrasy that marked Orthodox worship.)

The early Reform movement’s focus on this kind of change helped bring Jewish life into a more “modern” phase. This focus on unison meant a focus on decorum; this meant things like children having a separate service from adults on many occasions, and often the kinds of expectations that create the situation Rabbi Creditor observed.

But it’s also an exclusivist approach to community life. And it doesn’t only exclude children.

What should we be doing instead?

We’re unlikely, I think, to be able in many places to undo entirely the in-unison aspect of synagogue services and celebrations. In part, that’s a function of the place of Jewish community life in most Jews’ personal lives. We don’t live in shtetls or ghettos any longer, and we shouldn’t want to. But that change means that most Jews are simply far less conversant with how services go than their ancestors might have been; there will be some felt need to “keep everyone on the same page.”

What we can do–what we must do–is remember what it means to have a synagogue. It is a place where the Jewish community is drawn together–all of the Jewish community (or at least all of the community that finds itself at that synagogue). And to remember that means to incorporate into the core consciousness of our communities the idea of drawing everyone together.

Creditor says, in his article, “Our sanctuaries are not sanctuaries from children. They are sanctuaries for children.”

Not only for children. Everyone belongs here. It’s our job to ensure we act accordingly.