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Friday, December 13, 2019

It was many Passovers ago, 10 to be exact, when I was a young mom of two toddlers. My oldest was 2 1/2, imaginative and playful, and my youngest was 1 year old, strong willed, determined and walking way before any of his siblings ever did. We were spending the holiday in Florida with our extended family, revisiting our old neighborhood and meeting up with some friends, and attended a synagogue we had never been to before for holiday services.

It has always been irrelevant to me how old my children were; I still made every effort to attend shul and be inside for a part of the prayers, even just for a few minutes, on a weekly basis. How much more so, on a holiday, did I yearn for those few moments of spiritual connection. It has always been an internal struggle for me—the juxtaposition of having to care for young kids who don’t always belong in a shul, while wanting so much to be present for prayers, to have my soul feel alive while it frequently felt muted by the mutiny of diaper changes, tantrums and cleaning up toys. I was raised going to shul each Shabbat, in a fancy dress with a matching headband, and white or black patent-leather shoes, depending on the season. It was part of the fabric of my childhood, and so, I continued on in these traditions, minus the white patent leather.

I showed up in the middle of services, together with another family member and our young children. We found empty seats in the front, near a side aisle, and I had placed a few small toys and items in a tote bag so that the kids could sit on the floor and not be disruptive to anyone nearby. The toys worked, and we were able to make it through many songs and prayers; the pages turned with fervor, each one a tiny victory, with no disruptions. The majority of the attendees, I noticed, were senior citizens, typical for this particular Florida neighborhood, but also a direct result of the fact that the shul did not offer any youth groups, perhaps because there was no youth, anyway.

The rabbi got up to speak, and the room fell silent, except for the occasional throat clearing of a gentleman across the partition, and the rustling of some candy wrappers being opened. All eyes turned on him as he began his sermon about the holiday of Passover and the meaning of the symbolic foods we place on our tables. My niece, who was 18 months and had been sitting at our feet, cooed with pleasure at the sight of her smiling cousin, and I wouldn’t have noticed, wouldn’t have thought anything was awry or unusual, except for the impending silence that ensued. The Rabbi ceased talking, pausing from his lengthy sentence, and looked up. “There’s a playground outside, and a playroom upstairs,” he announced, looking pointedly at the baby’s mother. It took a few moments for her to gather up her baby and some of her things in order to exit, and still, the rabbi waited. He waited so long that I felt pangs of embarrassment for her. I felt the sweat bead upon my forehead, knots of anxiety in my stomach, lest my own child utter a syllable. I wanted to kick her, to nudge her, to make her leave the room faster because the silence he created was so thick and uncomfortable, so unnecessarily overbearing. I couldn’t tell if her shuffling to gather up her child made her oblivious to the reverberating silence and so she took her time, or if she was actually floundering while rushing to leave.

And when she left, the rabbi resumed speaking, as if the coast was clear, the offensive toddler who had gurgled would no longer detract from the eyes that should be trained only on him. But I knew it was bound to happen, that we would be next, and I breathed quietly, shallowly, hoping to not cause anything or anyone around me to stir. But, my daughter who had been playing quietly in the corner, said the word “no” in a voice that breathed barely above a whisper. And again, the rabbi’s supersonic ears heard that sound, the tiniest voice in the room that had spoken the smallest of words. He stopped, staring straight at me, like lasers piercing through my skin, and burning me up inside. The one who hadn’t gone out. Who hadn’t accepted his invitation to use the playground. Who dared to try to be a part of a prayer service, despite the fact that she was also a mother. Who wronged the elder crowd by hoping her young kids would grow up with the songs of prayers on their lips and at the tips of their tongues.

That deafening pause.

I put down my prayer book, lifted up my baby, and ran for my daughter as the silence around me grew devastatingly tense. As he paused in his Torah thoughts, the congregants became restlessly curious, and most eyes turned to follow his, staring at me and my children, over the low partition. They watched me struggle to pull my daughter from the floor because she did not want to leave. They saw as she burst into tears and threw herself on the floor, and how I had to carry two kids out of the room, one a disruptive, moving target, the other, limp and confused. Perhaps that was the greatest moment of the sermon, the one that captured the most attention and interest of the congregants: watching my struggle, watching snidely as I slunk out of the room, as peals of laughter chased me down the aisle that I walked. Trying to create a pristine atmosphere in which to deliver words of Torah only succeeded in creating a circus out of my family, filled with mockery and embarrassment.

Thankfully, my husband noticed, and came to my rescue, as he always does in life, and he met me by the door to pull one of the kids from my arms. He watched me collapse in tears in a side hallway, the intense shame I had experienced overwhelming my fragility, my sadness intensifying the tears of my emotionally distraught daughter.

I have been privileged to pray at many synagogues in my lifetime, and many times have heard children in the background of a rabbi’s speech, yet never have I witnessed an individual singled out in front of the entire congregation being forced to leave, like in a classroom full of misbehaving elementary school students. Usually rabbis are compassionate and have found ways to incorporate the disruption into the speech, to casually drop a joke about the crying sounds. The parent has been able to deal with the issue accordingly—to either appropriately shush the child, or slip quietly out the door of her own accord. I have never witnessed such a public expulsion.

The episode made me greatly rethink my place in a shul. It had me wondering whether maybe I was indeed incorrect, and a prayer service should be strictly limited to those who can be of serious participation. There are definitely merits to both schools of thought. And although a part of me felt I should never set foot in a shul again as the hatred and shame continued to boil inside of me for the remainder of the holiday, I was strong enough in my faith to know that one bad experience would not translate to a future of constant negative encounters.

As I stood outside that sanctuary, hovering against the wall outside of a bathroom, my husband trying to comfort me and the children, a young woman with her hair tied up in a floral scarf, appeared next to us. “I’m so sorry about what just happened,” she said, as if she were apologizing on the rabbi’s behalf. “After what he did to you, I can’t listen to his speech any longer.” Our eyes locked, and I felt an immediate kinship with this young woman, who revealed that she was also a guest in the shul. I wasn’t alone in feeling wronged.

After services had finished, my husband approached the rabbi to explain our sense of hurt from our perspective. He was apologetic but seemed unwilling to acknowledge the error of his ways. I later sent him a lengthy email further explaining my position and urging him to adjust his approach, lest he turn others away. He called me to discuss and admitted I was correct. While I never returned to his shul again, I never stopped attending anywhere else. I refused to allow him to interfere in my relationship with God.

Over the years, I have grown to believe that keeping prayer as first and foremost in my life, and instructing my children (even at home) to not be disruptive during this intimate, holy conversation, teaches them discipline, respect and adherence of boundaries. It reminds them that even though their needs may be pressing or otherwise perilously urgent, there is a God who watches over us, and if we maintain and honor that connection, our requests will hopefully be met. Sometimes, there are disturbances, unbalances or people that will get in our way, but we must follow the straight path of our personal beliefs, heads held high, marching on.

By Sarah Abenaim

 Sarah Abenaim is a freelance writer and writing coach, based in Teaneck. She can be reached at [email protected]