Yom Kippur 5776, I had the worst experience of my entire life at a temple, EVER. Worse than the time I was completely ignored by every single congregant while checking out a new temple, worse than fainting on the bimah, worse than anything I could really ever imagine experiencing in a Jewish community. One that I had mostly experienced as being welcoming and comforting. Here is most of what I wrote to my new Rabbi in response to the traumatic day.
I have to say it’s Sunday and the first day I have not been in tears about my experience at the family service on Yom Kippur at your Temple. So I think now is a good time to put my thoughts and feelings into an email….
…My husband was out of town for Yom Kippur, so I figured that since you offered a family service, I could attend with my boys and have a good experience of being able to hear the ashamnu and the usual inspiring and introspective words you would expect to hear for the holiday and have the boys experience it too. At the temple we just ended our membership at, family services were for children of all ages and the quiet room was for children who were crying or screaming loudly and it was expected that children might be out of their seats or in the aisles, having fun while still being a part of the service in the synagogue. Since I assumed the family service was for all families, I assumed I would be able to attend with my 1 and 3 year old, without my husbands assistance and have 1 hour of a Yom Kippur service before going to break the fast in West LA.
I arrived and sat in front of 2 ladies I know who work at the JCC, who were lovely and seemed very understanding of the fact that my young boys were standing instead of sitting, singing along with the choir, which they loved and being as good as you could expect a 1 and 3 year old to be.
Unfortunately, a few of the other congregation members were not understanding at all. I was getting repeated nasty looks from a lady on my right and it became so disturbing, I stood up to collect my children. My plan was to use the quiet room as a “time out” room for my oldest until he decided he wanted to be back in the synagogue, enjoying the service. As I was about to reach for my youngest, a gentleman decided to come across the aisle to tell me that there was a quiet room and directed me to its location. A second indication that we were not welcomed at this “family” service.
I shook it off and decided the back row would be best for us once my son was ready to rejoin the service. Unfortunately, the back row was so far from the choir and instruments that my oldest quickly lost interest and began running in circles with his brother (as quietly as possible) in the back area.
It was not ideal, but at least I tried to do something meaningful with my family on Yom Kippur. After about 5 minutes of being in the back row, another gentleman decided to let me know that babysitting was available for children under 5. That’s when I lost it. I burst into tears and left the service early. The message was clear: you and your family should not be here. It was by FAR the worst experience I’ve had at any temple in my 37 years of life.
I was leaving the temple sobbing as a “greeter” outside said goodbye to me without asking if I was ok, if I needed help, like I was a normal sight to see. Also, very disappointing. I know you, as temple staff, are not responsible for all of the actions your members make and I have been (in the spirit of Yom Kippur) trying to give the people who made me feel so unwelcome, the benefit of the doubt, maybe they were trying to be helpful or maybe they were testy from fasting. I don’t know, but I forgive them.
I have talked to other Jewish parents with children the same age as my kids and they also indicated the family service was not for all families and that they would not return to that service until their kids were much older. This is a stark contrast to the programming you offer that I’ve experienced thus far, which has been very welcoming and inclusive. I plan on spending the rest of this year attending as many family events as I can. After Wednesday, I can’t guarantee we will be members in 5777, but I am keeping an open mind for now.
Since you don’t know me that well, I will say that I’m not a “crier” (which makes the fact that I cried for 4 straight days significant) and that I will never complain without making suggestions on how things could be better. A few suggestions:
Encourage the family service to be truly family friendly, encourage children to be in the aisles and crate an atmosphere where lively, childlike, yet respectful behavior is encouraged.
Create a separate “tot” service in a separate room or facility with either the family service live streamed in or someone else leading the service and indicate service in the synagogue as for children 6 and up.
Keep things as they are and at least put on the service description as for kids six and up. Or 8 and up, whatever age you expect children to sit quietly for an hour during service.
If I had known what to expect, I never would have gone, which is disappointing. The whole experience was disappointing. Ask yourselves How many other members (families with young children) are feeling alienated on the most holy day of the year?
Ugh. Even rereading it brings back the feelings of rejection and disgust. How much I believed that the universe was telling me we had made a horrible mistake in switching temples, but you know what? I stuck with it. I did Sukkot, Tot Shabbats and even Family Camp. We had good experiences with families we liked for the rest of the year. Amazingly, we even signed up for the Torah school, even though our son goes to a Jewish preschool. Because the staff reached out to us, because they and the congregants encouraged and supported us. We found our new home and even though the one experience was frighteningly bad, it began to fade, until the High Holidays came sneaking around again. I got my packet, shuddered and hid it in my inbox, putting it off as long as possible. But guess what? When I finally opened it, I was pleasantly surprised.
The temple added 4 new service options for kids grades K-8! This doesn’t apply to me right now, because my boys are too young, BUT they listened AND things changed. Not really what I was expecting, but a lovely and heartwarming thing to see coming off a Yom Kippur with so many bad feelings (and not the normal bad feelings we should be having on Yom Kippur). A lovely and heartwarming year of feeling like we may have a future here after all. I expected the worst and got the best.
So for 5777, I’m going back to my old temple on Yom Kippur. My husband is, again, out of town and I cannot bring myself to go back alone, to the same family service. Maybe next year, but this year, I am at least sorry that I can’t bring myself to give it a second chance. Maybe next year, with confidence that because I shared my tribulation, I can expect the best and get it.
May the Schwartz Be With You