One of the saddest sounds, in my opinion, is that of a mother irritably shushing her toddler while in the synagogue for High Holiday services. Babies learn communication by gurgling, cooing, and laughing and this should not be inhibited. On the other hand, most women go to services to concentrate on their prayers. Why should they be distracted by adorable, sociable little beings? On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur young mothers feel the need to pray with the community so they bring their children with them. Those youngsters make noise, other women are annoyed, the mothers impatiently quiet the children, the children decide the synagogue is not a welcoming place, and the mothers are not really able to pray. There has to be a better solution.
There is a famous story about Rav Yisroel Salanter, the founder and spiritual father of the Mussar movement, the movement that taught techniques for spiritual and character growth in nineteenth century in Europe. One Yom Kippur Rav Salanter did not arrive at the synagogue in the prescribed time for the holy Kol Nidre service. His congregants waited and waited for him as the sun sank lower and lower in the sky. Finally a search party set out to discover what had happened to their righteous rabbi. At last he was found. He had not been attacked by bandits. Nor had he succumbed to illness. Rather, on his way to services he had heard the sound of sobbing. Investigating, the Rav discovered the source of the tears. A young girl had been left to tend her sleeping, baby brother so her mother could attend Kol Nidre services. The infant had awoken crying and all the young girl’s efforts to calm him were fruitless. She joined him in his tears. So instead of going to the synagogue, Rav Salanter stayed with the child and comforted both her and the baby.
If Rav Yisroel Salanter decided that taking care of a child was more important than going to Kol Nidre services should the mothers of young children feel differently? Taking care of precious souls is indeed holy work. Yet, in our times when we think we can have it all, it is hard for many women to accept the fact that perhaps they belong at home on Kol Nidre night.
My children are no longer little and I have been able to go to the synagogue on a regular basis without worrying about child care for a number of years. Still, I remember those days when that wasn’t the situation. With some creative thinking I found several solutions.
The most obvious was to hire a babysitter and when I lived in America I did that on a regular basis. However, there are many people who do not want a non-Jewish caretaker watching their children on the High Holy Days and I understand that.
Some years it worked out that my husband would go to the sunrise services. Once home he would take care of the children so I could go to synagogue with a clear mind. Usually, though, he preferred going to the main minyan and it was not the best option for us.
There are some synagogues which establish a special women’s section for young mothers. Since everyone there has babies and toddlers no one gets annoyed with gurgling, cooing, laughing, and even crying youngsters. I don’t think that would have worked for me but I have spoken to mothers who do love it.
What did work for me was switch-offs with my friends who had children of similar ages. You go to services first day Rosh HaShanah and I’ll take the second. I want Musaf and afternoon services on Yom Kippur and you can have Kol Nidre, morning services, and Neilah. During my watch I would tell the children stories appropriate for the day and when they were playing nicely together take some time for my own prayers. It was a win-win situation with happy children and mothers who could go to the synagogue and truly concentrate on the services for half the time.
With a big family there is much to do to prepare for the holidays: menus to plan, meals to cook, clothes to buy, a house to clean, guests to invite, as well as thinking about the meaning of the special days. It is good to also remember to take some time to make some sensible child care arrangements. That done, then most likely, young mothers can have a meaningful holiday. May we all be blessed for a good year.