Say you’re thinking about starting up a new synagogue. You want to attract young families because you recognize those are the kind of people who can grow with your shul and nourish a budding community. Where do you start?
Well, you might begin by looking for a dynamic rabbi or spiritual leader, someone who can galvanize his or her audience with the wisdom of our sages, a Jewish mentor equally accessible and inspirational whether lecturing to the masses on the High Holidays or counseling individuals behind closed doors.
Perhaps, recognizing that Judaism must keep up with times, you put all your focus into online infrastructure, e-learning and social interaction, so that if you can’t get people to come to shul, at least you can bring the shul to them. Maybe you offer cost-efficient – even free – membership, always a plus for families with young children and precarious careers, or a post-services Kiddush with all the fixings.
Worthy ideas, to be sure, but in my humble opinion the best place for any synagogue with great aspirations to start is neither in the sanctuary nor in the social hall. It’s in the nursery.
For my kids, the sanctuary on Shabbat morning is little more than the place where the lollipops live (OK, and the Torahs, too). It’s a quick stop on the way to their ultimate destination: the daycare room. My kids are eager to see their friends and play games. They look forward to kibitzing with the caregivers, volunteers and clergy who nurture their Jewish souls through play and song – and love, too. It’s the only place they want to be, really.
At first, I stuck around because my kids wouldn’t let me leave. But now that they’re older, I could be spending more quiet time in the sanctuary. And yet every time I manage to slip away, I inevitably end up right back at the nursery within minutes. Because that’s where the real action is.
Sitting on a miniature but surprisingly comfortable chair watching the kids bounce around the daycare room, I often chuckle at how much the scene resembles the sanctuary below. There are the early arrivers, and those who materialize just in time for the big sing-a-long finale. There’s the earnest kid studiously playing with the train set, a tight-knit group on the carpet in the middle of the room loudly singing “I had a little challah,” and a trio off to the side talking quietly while they munch on crackers. There’s even one kid pacing the length of the floor for no apparent reason and with no obvious destination. It’s like being in shul, but more amusing – and, for me at least, uplifting.
In a few years, my kids will be too old for nursery games; I might want them to spend a bit more time in the sanctuary, anyways. But I hope the fun and joyous Judaism they get to share at the shul daycare on Shabbat mornings stays with them forever. I hope the friendships they discover form into strong bonds, and that they fondly remember the dedicated teachers who help them grow and learn. Everything else is secondary.