It finally happened. My son is almost 9 months old, and this week, for the first time, a stranger came up to me and asked me to “take him somewhere else.” Even worse, it happened at synagogue.
The woman who approached me was quite obviously not a member of our congregation—and when some of the clergy and lay leaders later heard what happened, they were a combination of embarrassed, irritated and bemused. Each of them said to me, with a smile, “Well, clearly she is not a member here.” This was obvious to me, as it was to them, because our congregation—Adas Israel in Washington, D.C.—is about the most kid-friendly place I have ever been.
Walk into our main sanctuary on a given Saturday and amid the chanting and praying and shuffling of pages, you’ll hear a symphony of children’s voices. Laughing, singing, crying, asking questions—doing all the things kids do. Look around and you’ll see kids on the bimah, kids in the pews with their families, kids walking the aisles, mamas nursing babies, papas clutching kids under a tallis as they rock rhythmically back and forth. In one service, you’ll even find a play area for kids off to the side of the room.
It’s one of my favorite things about our community, and I can safely say that someone who doesn’t believe children belong in sacred spaces wouldn’t last more than a week at Adas.
The day after my unfortunate confrontation with this anonymous heckler, I thought a lot about writing something addressed to her: “An open letter to the woman who tried to kick me and my son out of our own sanctuary.” I thought about telling her that I take my son to synagogue with me because I believe that if we want our children to learn how to behave in synagogue, if we want them to develop a love of Judaism, not just a sense of obligation, we have to bring them with us and let them be themselves in the sanctuary.
I thought about telling her that I had helped organize the communitywide vigil for the victims of the Orlando shooting that she tried, and failed, to exclude me from. That I had spent all week holding back my tears and desperately needed a solemn moment of reflection among my community, even if I had to do it sitting on the floor behind the last pew while my son nursed. That leaning over a woman who is nursing a baby and interrogating her (“Isn’t there anywhere else you can do that?”) is never OK, even if you are also a woman. That if she would leave me alone long enough to listen to the speaker, she’d hear him explaining that Talmud demands we prioritize life over death, which could help explain why it’s in fact appropriate for a happy, gurgling baby to be present at a vigil or memorial service.
I thought about publishing one of those open letters, one of those rants that seem to so often go viral these days. But I realized that for all the things she chose not to see or find out about me, there are plenty I don’t know about her either. Did I meet her on one of her worst days? Did she lose someone in the Pulse shooting? Did she go home and think, “Wow, I can’t believe I lost my cool like that—how embarrassing”? I don’t know.
Actually, the person I really wish I could talk to is the other target of this woman’s misguided scolding — the man who was standing next to me holding his 1-year-old son. The man who had also relegated himself to the back of the room, trying to keep his kid quiet as he listened with tears in his eyes to the prayer for peace. The man who turned beet red and fled the sanctuary as soon as she approached us and asked us to take our kids elsewhere.
Here’s what I wish I could say to that dad:
I don’t know your name or what brought you to the Orlando vigil that night. I don’t know if you’re a member of another congregation or if you’re even religious. I don’t know if you’re a single parent or if you, like me, were flying solo that night because your partner was working. But I hope that encounter won’t discourage you from bringing your son back to shul. I hope you didn’t leave Adas that night with the message that a sanctuary is no place for children. I hope the next time someone asks you if you can take your son somewhere else, you’ll remember seeing me stand my ground and feel brave enough to do the same. I hope that in the future, when you’re alone with your son, you won’t hesitate to come to synagogue, whether to pray, to sing, to learn or even just to schmooze. I hope you’ll bring your son with you and give yourself a chance to experience whatever it is you come to synagogue for. Being a parent does not disqualify you from those needs, those moments or those places. If you’re anything like me, you might realize that it only enhances them.
Leilah Mooney Joseph is a writer and activist who blogs at https://medium.com/@LeilahMJ. She lives in Washington, D.C.
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