The Kids are All Right

Just when we go to all that trouble to get kids to come to services, we hurriedly rush them out and tell them they’re not welcome.

Four times a year, we recite Yizkor–on Yom Kippur, as well as on the last day of each of the Three Festivals: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. The service itself does not consist of much–we include short passages marking the deaths of family members and recite the El Malei on behalf of all who have passed away over the years. More than merely text, it really provides a structured opportunity to remember family members in the context of the synagogue and is part of the ebb and flow of the Jewish calendar.

Even thought there’s no rule about it, in many synagogues it’s customary or even strongly encouraged for the children (presumably with both parents living) to leave the sanctuary during the brief time that Yizkor is being said. Why?

1. Superstition:

It’s amazing how many of our Jewish traditions are based on superstitions, but are nevertheless perpetuated from one generation to the next. In this case, we worry that a child with both parents living who is present for Yizkor will catch the attention of the Malach Hamavet, the Angel of Death. It’s basically a Jewish way of telling a person that they’re tempting fate by doing something. So it’s easier to just send the kid out of the room instead of spending the whole time Poo Pooing and saying keynahara.

My response: The more we can separate our observance of tradition and ritual from silly superstitions, the better. We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about imaginary angels and devils.

2. Protecting the Feelings of Others:

According to this opinion, people who are in mourning wish to be surrounded only by others in the same situation. Seeing children or others who have not experienced a death might make that person envious of their supposed better fortune, thereby magnifying their own grief–as if one person’s sadness could be increased by its absence in someone else’s life.

My response: In some misguided attempt to protect the feelings of those who are in mourning, you’re taking away a perfect opportunity to teach children empathy, and to expose them to appropriate displays of grief and sadness. It also gives kids a more complete picture of Jewish tradition–it’s not always Purim in the sanctuary. Sometimes people cry in shul, and that’s OK.

3. Behavior:

This might be the most practical of all the reasons. The Yizkor service is a somber period of recollection, and is not the time for crying or noisy kids of any age.

My response: Agreed. So very young kids who cannot control their behavior should definitely be given a break outside the sanctuary. But this is also a perfect, teachable opportunity for other children to learn how to demonstrate respect for those around them. We lose that chance when we make everything in temple fun and entertaining.

Yizkor is a time for everyone. It provides an opportunity to bring the congregation–the entire congregation–together in a display of communal mourning. That includes congregants of all ages. Children can and should learn that Judaism teaches us how to mourn as well as how to celebrate.

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