A family enters the synagogue room, a little boy holding his parents' hands and an older sister looking around with anticipation. At the front, the Rosh Hashanah service is being led by congregants. On a mat in the corner, children play quietly, then pause for a story that leads to a discussion of forgiveness. Some of the parents seated on the mat are following the service even as they keep an eye on their children.
That's the vision for the High Holiday services I'll be guiding this year at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City. For many years, BZBI has offered an alternative to the main service. The "Kahaner" service, named after the room in which it's held, has been led by congregants along with a rabbi. This year, we are trying to enhance the traditional, lay-led service with aspects that are family-friendly.
On previous High Holidays, I served as rabbi and hazzan for a congregation in Olean, N.Y.; as hazzan at a synagogue in Newburgh, N.Y.; and as a service leader and speaker at a long-running chavurah-style service in Merion, Pa.
There was something to learn from each place:
· In Merion, the variety of voices that led prayers and the way children were free to wander in and out showed me that an informal yet complete service could be accomplished.
· Newburgh taught that no matter where people sit, no matter how invested they are in the liturgy, I must reach everyone.
· At Olean, the 35 people on erev Rosh Hashanah included a religion class from a local university and I felt that I had to ad lib, adapting explanations and other talks accordingly.
Many shuls offer family-friendly services through the year. For services that parents and children attend together, synagogue practices can range from a box of toys in a corner of the room to a "crying" or "quiet" room with a large window view of the sanctuary. Audio of the service is piped in.
This year at BZBI, we're trying to make a service appeal to adults and offer a meaningful experience to their children, all in one room. To help make this work, I will be drawing on my experience as a parent, on the varied services I've attended or led, and on my studies in liturgy and sacred text at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
As is usual at the Kahaner service, congregants will lead the prayers, read Torah and share English readings. I will be offering occasional explanations and kavanot (meditations) along with a longer talk for adults. For children, there will be stories, discussions and perhaps a song or two. This isn't a hard and fast division; some of the explanations will suit all ages.
In preparing for these High Holiday services, many questions came up, including:
· What are the best children's stories — for various ages — with High Holiday themes?
· Can I create self-guided learning that is appropriate for parents and their children ages 4 to 10?
· Are there hands-on craft projects that can be done quietly without cutting or coloring?
· How much time can I dedicate to the children — and parents — and at what points during the service do I serve them?
· When, if ever, is the sound of children playing a distraction for those trying to pray?
Our High Holiday liturgy cites the prophet Isaiah: "A great shofar will be sounded and a still small voice will be heard." We might interpret this as indicating that even as we listen to the call of our prayers, we must remain attuned to the voices of the little ones we bring along with us.
Jonathan Kremer, of Ardmore, is an artist of Judaica www.jonathankremer.com, a composer and a student in the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary.