When I served as president of the Toronto Board of Rabbis a representative of the Toronto archdiocese contacted me to organize a joint conference on youth engagement. The Catholic clergy were under the impression that synagogues were succeeding in attracting young people while the Catholic Church was not. Aside from the fact that the Catholics harbored a misimpression, the conference allowed for a free and full exchange of ideas.
A new piece of information that I learned in passing was that Catholic churches tried to retain the solemnity of religious services by excluding young children from the main sanctuary. Instead, children were relegated to a glass paneled area at the rear which is called “the crying room” since that was the inevitable consequence of separating young children from their parents. But because the area was soundproof, the rites of the church proceeded uninterruptedly. I pointed out that for synagogues, while retaining the dignity of the religious service was important, including children – even at the risk of interruption – was paramount. It is through early exposure to religious rituals that Jewish children grow acclimated.
This differing outlook regarding children’s participation is not new. Moses answers Pharaoh that both old and young together must be allowed to celebrate a shared sacrificial festival (Exodus 10:9). The sacrifices could only take place outside Egypt since the Egyptians considered the animals to be sacrificed as sacred. Pharaoh rejects Moses’ demand (Exodus 10:11). No doubt Pharaoh reasoned that the only way he could assure a return to Egypt was by keeping the children as hostages. But what he tells Moses is that only adults are necessary in performing religious rites. While it is true that only adults are counted in the performance of religious rituals, children are nonetheless included in religious rituals.
It is fascinating that in the Jewish world today the more liberal the synagogue the more particular the synagogue is in maintaining decorum whereas the more observant the congregation is the more likely it will allow for the unfettered and even the uncontrolled inclusion of children. Perhaps this helps explain which synagogues are best retaining their youth.