Do you want them to recognize Jewish ritual objects and their uses?
Do you want them to know how to behave in a Jewish prayer service?
Do you want them to be familiar with the sights and sounds of Jewish prayer?
Do you want them to know how to greet other Jews on Shabbat and holidays?
There is one thing you can do that will accomplish all these things (and more!):
Take your kids to shul (synagogue).
Yep. That's it.
You don't have to be an expert in any of the above for your kids (and you!) to learn about all of it, just by taking your family to shul on a regular basis. The rabbi, cantor, and lay leaders are the experts and do the Jewish prayer service every week, and every day in some shuls.
Don't know the prayers? Don't know the motions? It's no excuse. Most of Jewish prayer is silent or led by the prayer leader, so just stand up when everyone stands up and sit down when they sit down. (If more people are sitting down than standing up, like for the Mourner's Kaddish, you should probably sit down too, unless you're in mourning.)
Don't know how to greet other Jews on Shabbat and holidays? It's no excuse. Just repeat what they say back to you. If someone says, "Gut Shabbos," you say "Gut Shabbos" back. "Shanah Tovah" gets a "Shanah Tovah" in return. Teach your kids to do the same - they love repeating things back to their teachers (you!)
Here are some tips to make your shul-going experience with children as pleasant and instructive as possible:
1. Keep your expectations low. For Kol Nidre (the eve of Yom Kippur), David and I said we wanted to stay through the chanting of the actual Kol Nidre prayer, and then we would be okay with leaving. That prayer occurred about half an hour into the prayer service. We barely made it. Be prepared to leave if your child throws a fit or acts up. It's okay - Shabbat services happen every week.
(Kol Nidre before and after. See the disparity?)
(Rami having a total meltdown right before we leave for shul)
2. Explain to your children exactly how they should behave. Asher and I had this conversation before we walked into shul yesterday:
Me: "Asher, when we walk into the shul, should we use our loud voices or quiet voices?"
Asher: "Quiet voices."
Me: "And may we run around like wild things, or walk and sit quietly?"
Asher: "Sit quietly."
Me: "Asher, what should we say to people we see in shul?"
Asher: "Gut Shabbos."
And he got it! He truly did. Now, these are the only three behaviors I dictated to him. This left room for him to move seats, whisper things to me, and play quietly with toys. Which brings me to.....
3. Come prepared. Bring non-messy snacks (like apple slices) and quiet toys and books for the children to amuse themselves with. Just sitting in the prayer service will teach your kids an awful lot, especially the younger ones - they don't need to pay attention to every single word. Remember that in more traditional synagogues toys that have electronic components and coloring books would be no-nos.
4. Make it special. Keep a special kippah (skullcap), special shoes, or special toys that only come out for shul-going. Our kids have these prayerbooks that they get to take with them only when they go to shul. I can't recommend these highly enough - they are tear-proof and simple for small children to handle and understand.
(Asher checking out his Shabbat siddur before shul)
5. Model behavior. If you want your children to pay attention to the prayer service, don't chat with your neighbors. Ask them to stand up for prayers with you. Sing along if you can. Your enthusiasm and attention will rub off on your child.
If you want them to greet other people, say "Shabbat Shalom," to as many people as you can, especially ones that look like they would be very happy to engage with a small child. You just might make someone's day!
Remember, by taking your children to shul, you are not only doing something for yourself and your family. You are enriching the entire Jewish community. Jewish communal leaders are seeing a decrease in regular Shabbat communities, and even mildly noisy children are a very welcome sight to "regulars." They would love for you to be a "regular" too. And as your children go to shul more and more, they will develop a relationship with the synagogue, its congregants, and its clergy, not to mention a comfort and familiarity with Jewish prayers and behaviors. 100% worth it, in my book.
Okay, shul-goers (and church-goers? Any Christians reading?) - What are your tips for making the most out of taking children to prayer services? Share them below, or link to your post that talks about it. Looking forward to hearing!