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Jewish Journal

Youth services give kids a break— from their parents

by Julie G Fax

September 21, 2006 | 8:00 pm

When Nancy Steiner sits in the pews at Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, she expects her daughters, ages 12, 15 and 19, to be by her side. "I'm sure there might be moment where they'd like to be elsewhere, but we have always set a firm example and said this is an obligation," Steiner said.
 
At what age kids should sit in the main sanctuary is a question that synagogues grapple with yearly, as they shuffle an everchanging set of services -- from childcare to youth minyans to family services to main sanctuary traditional.
 
The question is straightforward: Are High Holidays a family time, when kids should be seated by their parents? Or should kids be able to attend services geared specifically toward their developmental and spiritual realities? If the question is straightforward, the answers are anything but, with shuls of all denominations devising schedules that reflect widely varying philosophies.
 
The breakdown doesn't line up according to denominational lines or shul size --everyone seems to have a different take on whether or not the main sanctuary is an "adults-only zone."
 
Despite differences, nearly all shuls provide programs for kids 12 and under, give or take a year. Most shuls are somewhat flexible, so that families can sit together in the main sanctuary even if youth services are available, and older kids are sometimes allowed to "help out" with the younger kids when no services are available specifically for teens.
 
At Steiner's B'nai Tzedek, a Reform congregation, kids 11 and under have special programs. After that, they sit with their parents, and Steiner likes it that way.
 
"They get a sense of community. To have hundreds and hundreds of people singing at the same time is very powerful," she said. "And I think when you know you have met an obligation, there is sense of self-pride that comes with that." B'nai Tzedek's Rabbi Stephen Einstein says it's all about consistency in the message teens are getting.
 
"It seems to me if we say a bar or bat mitzvah means you are an adult, it's time to treat them as adults, and not to give them pablum," Einstein said. "They really need to deal with issues as emerging adults." So much so, that Einstein gives the kids their own pledge cards for the Yom Kippur appeal.
 
Many agree that the formative memories of High Holidays can take kids far as adults, with tunes and themes stretching far back into their consciousness. At University Synagogue in Brentwood, kids aged 10 and above are expected to be in services.
 
"We encourage families to be together for the Yamim Noraim," said Rabbi Morley Feinstein, who leads the Reform congregation. He wants children to see their parents model behaviors such as praying, or discussing the rabbi's sermon, and becoming part of the life of the shul.
 
"What we are really trying to say to families is that we love having you in the synagogue, we love having your children in the synagogue, and we want it to be a warm and welcoming place," he said. "At the same time, we recognize that the nature of the High Holiday experience can be daunting for young children."
 
So daunting, in fact, that many synagogues make options available for older kids as well. The impetus is twofold: to give kids a positive High Holiday experience, and to give parents a spiritual space free of fidgety dress shoes and constant requests for drinks or bathroom breaks.
 
"There is a culture of play in the community, and kids aren't accustomed to sitting in shul," acknowledges Rabbi Joshua Hoffman of Valley Beth Shalom, which offers youth services for kids up through their teens. "We aim to present active learning experiences interspersed with some prayers, so the young people feel like they can participate in something meaningful during the holidays."
 
At Beth Jacob, an Orthodox congregation in Beverly Hills, teens have their own minyan for all of the High Holidays services, including Kol Nidre and Neilah. Allowing kids to be separate from the parents for the High Holidays met with some opposition when it was introduced last year, but has picked up many supporters. Enrollment has doubled from last year.
 
"We have a shorter minyan and a lively chazzan, and we also explain the prayers," said Rabbi Uri Pilichowski, Beth Jacob's assistant rabbi who leads the teen minyan.
 
Pilichowski rejects the argument that teens need to be in the main sanctuary to learn the tunes and traditions.
 
"When they get older, what is more valuable, familiarity with tunes, or understanding what they are saying to their Creator?" he asks. Temple Beth Am, a Conservative synagogue on the Westside, takes a similar approach, offering not only services geared toward specific age groups, but a special needs service as well.
 
About 300 kids are served by Beth Am on the High Holidays, and Rabbi Mitch Malkus, Beth Am's day school director who also oversees Shabbat and Holiday youth programming, believes it is an important part of the year-round process. "We felt that it was important that what children experience is developmentally appropriate for them and able to give them a sense of the awe that surrounds these days," he said.
 
Teens participate by leading prayers or reading from the Torah, both in the youth services and the main services.
 
Getting kids to participate is a good way to get them involved, said Cantor Evan Kent of Temple Isaiah, a Westside Reform congregation. Some bar or bat mitzvah-age kids -- and even two pre-bar mitzvah age kids -- will blow shofar this year, and the post- bar and bat mitzvah kids will chant haftarah and part of the liturgy.
 
"There is a real multi-generational feel to the service," Kent said. In between the two ends of youth services vs. main sanctuary, there are combination approaches.  
Malibu Jewish Center, a Reconstructionist synagogue, has a High Holiday round-robin for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade. Then, after the rabbi's sermon, the kids are brought in for the last half hour of services, which includes shofar blowing and a lot of singing.
 
Kids older than fifth grade are expected to sit with their parents. But most kids won't sit for that long, so there is a snack room with apples and water where kids can go for a supervised break, and a teen room for hanging out.
 
"Parents love this approach, because they don't feel isolated from their kids, and yet when they feel the need to have space to do their own praying, they know there is a supervised place where they kids can go," said Michal Marks, director of education at Malibu Jewish Center.
 
And ever more popular is the family service, usually shorter, friendlier and more casual than the main service.
 
University Synagogue gets more than 1,000 people at its 1:30 p.m. family service, which is open to the public.
 
Temple Emanuel's family service has an intergenerational family choir and teenage junior cantors lead the services with the rabbis. Torah readers and the shofar blower are teenagers, too, and the sermon is an interactive story/discussion in which kids and their parents participate.
 
That service takes place in the late morning, and children are invited to a youth program after the family service so parents and grandparents can go to an adult service that follows.
 
That approach is one that avoids a family-service pitfall.
 
"Family services are usually shorter and geared for family participation, and I think that's a good option," said Ron Wolfson, author of "The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community" (Jewish Lights Publishing). "But the downside is that it's not necessarily developmentally appropriate for adults or for kids."
 
Wolfson encourages parents not to neglect their own spiritual needs on the High Holidays.
 
"It's such a powerful time in the year for people to have their own accounting of the soul and their own spiritual growth, I would hope parents could find a way to have that for themselves as well as for their children," said Wolfson, president of Synagogue 3000, an organization dedicated to revitalizing the American synagogue.
 
Of course, in reality, all shuls acknowledge that more kids than they want end up honoring another long held High Holiday tradition: romping through the halls. But even that has been incorporated in some places.
 
At Malibu Jewish Center, "the security guards find the kids and walk them back -- it's sort of a rite of passage," said Marks, educational director there. The synagogue also doles out about 1,500 honey sticks for adults to give to kids on Rosh Hashanah.
 
"The social experience is equally as important as the praying experience, and it can't be an experience of people chasing you out of everywhere," she said. Steiner says her daughters have always known where they are supposed to be.
 
And the approach seems to have worked for her. Her oldest daughter, Rachel, is in college in Ithaca, N.Y., this year and won't be coming home for the High Holidays. But she will be at services. She already made sure to seek out the Hillel, and on her own reserved a spot for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur davening.
 
"She's in New York and I have no control and wouldn't know if she went or not," Steiner said. "But this was important to her so she will attend services, and I feel proud that I instilled in her how important it is."
 
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