Synagogue seating typically includes pews, stacking chairs or even folding chairs. But come Sunday morning, part of the sanctuary of the Chabad of Cary Learning Center in North Carolina will be strewn will pillows and blankets, creating a comfy “kids’ zone” from which the youngest set can listen to the reading of the Ten Commandments.

“That’s one of the things that we find so refreshing about Chabad,” says Jeff Levine, who attends Chabad events together with his wife, Felicia, and their two children. “Typical synagogues tend to either shush the kids or keep them busy far away from the action. Chabad makes an effort to make sure that the kids are engaged and learning on their level, absorbing the significance of each celebration and holiday.”

Shavuot (“weeks” in Hebrew) starts this year on the evening of Saturday, June 11, and lasts through the evening of Monday, June 13. Including children is especially appropriate on Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah at Sinai shortly after the Exodus from Egypt. At that time, the Midrash relates, G‑d agreed to give the Torah to the Jewish people only after the children were offered as “guarantors,” ensuring that the Torah would be learned, cherished and observed for generations to come.

In modern times, the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—called upon every Jewish man woman and child to be present in the synagogue on the morning of the first day of Shavuot, when the Ten Commandments are read as part of the prayer service.

Such unity is fostered even more in the Hakhel year, when men, women and children gather in groups large and small for Torah study and camaraderie.

Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar, who co-directs Chabad of Cary with his wife, Chanale, says that they work hard to make sure that there is a meaningful and entertaining experience for children.

First, they gather around a tent, which is decorated to look like Mount Sinai. There each child gets a bag with a gift item inside, which then leads to a discussion about presents and how much fun it is to receive them. Chanale Cotlar, who leads the group, explains to the children—many of whom also attend Chabad’s Hebrew school—that the greatest gift of all is the Torah, which was given to the Jewish people on Shavuot.

In Cary, N.C., kids will gather around this makeshift “Mount Sinai” as they prepare to hear the Ten Commandments on Shavuot morning.
In Cary, N.C., kids will gather around this makeshift “Mount Sinai” as they prepare to hear the Ten Commandments on Shavuot morning.

The concept is further reinforced through an interactive book reading and a food-decorating project.

When the time comes, the children are ushered into the synagogue, where they make themselves comfortable in their special section for the actual reading of the Ten Commandments. After services, they join their parents for a dairy reception, which includes cheesecake and ice-cream.

‘Our Kids Ask to Come’

Over in Naperville, Ill., Rabbi Mendy and Alta Goldstein report that involving children is an integral element of all of their programs and services. “The feeling in the community is that children are not just OK at Chabad; they are welcomed with open arms,” says the rabbi.

“The kids love it,” reports local resident David Fish, who attends with his wife and three children, ages 9 to 13. “When I was young, I put up a fuss when my parents made me go to services. Our kids ask us to come to Chabad and even ‘argue’ when we cannot attend for whatever reason.”

According to Fish, the family’s involvement has also given them a sense of Jewish community. Located west of Chicago—a solid hour’s drive from the heavily Jewish northern suburbs—they welcome the opportunity to socialize with fellow “members of the tribe.”

Zeesy Posner, who runs the preschool and other children’s activities at Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie, Ill., teaches about the Jews receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai during a lesson on Shavuot. (Photo: Chaya Mishulovin)
Zeesy Posner, who runs the preschool and other children’s activities at Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie, Ill., teaches about the Jews receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai during a lesson on Shavuot. (Photo: Chaya Mishulovin)

Many of the friendships formed at Chabad have extended outside as well. “The kids call themselves the ‘Jew crew,’ and they hang out at the movies together or in the mall,” says Fish, about his junior-high-schoolers and their friends. “It’s just something that sprouted organically from so many years of having fun together at Hebrew school and other Chabad events.”

While the Fishes and the Levines both attended synagogue (albeit somewhat unwillingly) as children, Galina Dynkin of Kirkland, a suburb of Montreal, did not. “We had recently come from Russia,” she explains, “and my parents did not go to synagogue on a regular basis in those days.”

After meeting Rabbi Shmuel and Chana Cohen of Chabad of Kirkland, who had come knocking on her door nearly a decade ago, she began attending services at their fledgling Chabad center and brought her two boys along.

She says the rabbi goes out of his way to make her sons (now ages 10 and 12) feel comfortable through praising their Hebrew skills and complimenting them on the questions they ask at the children’s service.

“Working with kids is a key to our work,” reflects Chana Cohen. “Having them at shul is not just a necessary component of Jewish life—it is Jewish life.”

The Cotlar family of the Chabad of Cary Learning Center in North Carolina
The Cotlar family of the Chabad of Cary Learning Center in North Carolina