Drew Himmelstein misses her old synagogue — where she didn't feel hidden away at "family programming." (Photo/file)
Drew Himmelstein misses her old synagogue — where she didn't feel hidden away at "family programming." (Photo/file)

On shul-shopping with kids. Why silo us off into ‘family programming’?

It feels like I have been spending time in a lot of synagogue basements lately.

Well, a handful. My family moved to Brooklyn less than a year ago, and in between finding a new pediatrician, figuring out where to go grocery shopping and getting our kids set up in school and day care, we’ve been searching for a new Jewish community that we can make our own.

It’s slow going. Wrangling a toddler and a moody kindergartener into the car or subway during the witching hour while warding off tantrums to make it to Friday night services, or keeping them both busy and quiet with snacks, books and toys on a Saturday morning, is a serious undertaking under normal circumstances. We did it in San Francisco because the people and the experience were important to us at the Jewish community where we belonged. The payoff to all the work involved in getting to Shabbat services on a Friday night was being welcomed by warm, familiar faces, sharing traditions with our children and being challenged by our rabbi’s commentary.

But these days, when we know the result of our efforts in getting to shul will be spending 90 minutes shushing our children in a strange place that we may never return to among people we don’t know, it’s easy to throw in the towel and just stay home.

It’s not that the people we’ve met haven’t been welcoming.

It’s not that the people we’ve met haven’t been welcoming. Many have gone out of their way to tell us about their communities, introduced us to others they thought we would like to meet and suggested events and programs that might be a good fit for our family. And that welcome is incredibly important — if there are any Jewish professionals reading this, please know that the first couple of interactions that a new person or family has in your space can make or break their experience. At one synagogue, we encountered a staff member at the door and asked her several questions about the programming; she never introduced herself or welcomed us, even when we told her we were new to the area. Though this shul is less than a 10-minute walk from our home near Prospect Park, we haven’t been back.

But the biggest problem nagging our search is not the kind of welcome we receive, but the children’s services themselves. They’re great for our kids, but my husband and I need a more sophisticated level of engagement. The problem is that most synagogues in our area seem to be organized in such a way that the only avenue to participating with young children is by enrolling them in religious school or attending special children’s services with them. Few offer babysitting or simultaneous children’s programming during adult services, as our San Francisco shul did.

Since I’ve become siloed into Jewish family programming, I’ve come to realize that outside of spending time with my own extended family, I rarely find myself in intergenerational settings at all. But synagogues have the potential to be those places where young kids become friends with retirees and teenagers make funny faces at babies. I’ve seen it happen — at our old synagogue, my oldest son had independent friendships with adults older than me. I worry that by subdividing Jewish programming so much by age and life stage, synagogues are ceding ground in an area in which they have the potential to excel.

I remember a day at our former shul when my 3-year-old son decided to roll around quietly in the middle of the floor (for reasons only he understood) as people ate lunch at tables around him. “He doesn’t feel comfortable here at all, does he?” our rabbi joked. That’s what I want more of — a place where my kids can be comfortable, even too comfortable, where they have relationships with adults who are not related to them, where they run in and out of services while they play with their friends. I hope we find it; for now we’re going to keep exploring.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a J. parenting columnist and former staff writer. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.