My daughter Rebekah, recently turned 2, is very businesslike about synagogue. We usually arrive at our haimish congregation at 10:30 on Saturday mornings, about 15 minutes before the young children's service, for little Jews ages 0 to 5, begins. After taking our coats off, we make our way to "children's room," as Rebekah calls it, a large, carpeted space that during the week is home to a Montessori preschool. We're almost always early; we live only half a mile from the synagogue, but Rebekah begins urging us out of the house at around 9:30: "Shul now!" When we finally arrive at the otherwise empty children's room, she rifles through the wicker basket that holds the home-made toddler prayerbooks, finds the one with her name on it—she can't read, of course, but she recognizes what's hers—sits down on my lap, and says, "We start now."
Well, we don't start now. We don't start until 10, even 15 minutes later, when a quorum of around five children has arrived, a critical mass that will grow to about a dozen children, plus their parents, over the next 45 minutes. But until we begin, Rebekah is in a state of heightened, fidgety anticipation—and after we begin, she is happy, happy, happy. She loves the songs, loves babbling along with the few Hebrew words she has almost memorized, and especially loves marching around the room with a plushy stuffed Torah. Synagogue, along with Monday gym class and her daily DVD viewing of a trippy mid-1970s children's show that her mother loved as a child, is one of Rebekah's favorite rituals.
I don't kid myself that Rebekah has some unusual, precocious spirituality. She loves ritual, as all children love ritual. Nothing, except milk and maybe Graham crackers, is more comforting to a toddler than a fun routine enjoyed at predictable intervals. Little boys and girls love the sense of mastery that comes with repetition. They're so proud to finish our sentences as we read them a book for the 50th or one 100th time ("old lady who was whispering…" "hush!"). If we skip bath time, they know. But as much as I love seeing my daughter get excited about any of her routines, I acknowledge that there is something a little more complicated, for me, about religious enthusiasm. After all, I want her to be an enthusiastic reader and an enthusiastic bather. But I want her to be thoughtful and critical about religion. Although I've never asked, I think most of my fellow synagogue parents are atheists (as I am, about half the time). Is it wrong to educate our children in prayers whose value we feel ambivalent about?
This it not a uniquely Jewish question. All rabbis know the parents who discover Judaism two years before their children are of bar or bat mitzvah age, then quit the synagogue the day after the party—but every priest, minister, and imam also know worshippers who discover organized religion only when they become parents. And scholars have confirmed what every clergyperson knows anecdotally. "Both getting married and having children bring adults 'back to church,' " sociologist Penny Edgell, author of Religion and Family in a Changing Society, told me by e-mail. "These effects are bigger for children than for marriage. And for both getting married and having children, the effects on church attendance are bigger for men than for women." Beleaguered clergy tend to have two responses. First, they are thankful that children bring in parents who otherwise would never join a religious community. But, second, they can't help but feel used: They're supposed to educate children in the value of religion, even as the parents—who may be golfing or shopping while the children are at confirmation classes—signal in all sorts of ways that religion doesn't really matter. Such behavior cheapens religion, makes clergy hate their jobs, makes children cynical, and leads to jokes like the one about the father who says to his son, "You hate Sunday school? Well, I hated Sunday school, you hate Sunday school, and someday your children will hate Sunday school—that's tradition!"