In most religious sanctuaries, children may be seen, but not heard. Parents get embarrassed by a child’s disruption, and many congregations have separate programs for children to attend while parents leave to pray. Congregation Or Hadash in Sandy Springs is on to something different.

Rather than viewing children as noise, they are the background and the backbone of the service, the synagogue and its community. Or Hadash’s celebration of the Jewish holiday Shemeni Atzeret on Oct. 24 marked the dedication of its new “Pray Ground,” an area just off from the platform at which prayer is conducted where children younger than five play and listen to the service.

Mila Sagel, 3, plays with a dollhouse at the new “Pray Ground” at Congregation Or Hadash in Sandy Springs. Children younger than five can play in this area while they listen to services. (Photo Tali Medwed)

“In our congregation kids are the core treasure of our congregation. They are the warmth of our service. It’s another opportunity to welcome them,” said Rabbi Analia Bortz, who started Congregation Or Hadash with her husband, Rabbi Mario Karpuj, 13 years ago. The conservative egalitarian synagogue has grown into a modern, light-filled space at 7460 Trowbridge Road.

“We wanted to bring them in, to create something interesting and motivating to them in their own language and to make them feel part of the whole sacred community,” she said.

During the recent service, about half a dozen children played with dolls or stuffed animals, read books and configured puzzles. They were encouraged to share with each other and put back what they touched. A low hum of the playtime filled the sanctuary, but the children stayed quiet, preoccupied with their toys. Some even sang along with the tunes they recognized.

“It seems that they couldn’t stay away,” said Or Hadash Executive Director Erica Hruby. “They were very excited to have a place to be a part of services, while they are at an age-appropriate level where we can’t expect them to sit and follow along with the service. But they can hear the service and what is happening around them, while they are playing, and begin to internalize what is happening in the service.”

The synagogue’s president, Marc Medwed was inspired by an article he found about a church in Minnesota that created a similar space for its young members in May, and Bortz and Karpuj embraced the idea.

“I think the Pray Ground was very well received by both kids and parents and many are looking forward to enjoying the space together and to contributing to its growth,” Medwed said in an email.

Bortz predicted that this type of experience will help the children grow familiar with the services. In fact, several children as young as eight years old took turns reading from the Torah and being an integral part of the services.

With the addition of the children, and the Pray Ground, prayers come alive, Bortz said. “They bring God in when they are smiling and praying and playing. They embellish our space,” she said.

“If we had people who come and complain about the noise from kids we might say to them this might not be the right place for you,” Bortz said. “We value the [connection of] generation to generation, L’Dor VaDor. The kids are our next ‘Dor,’ the generation. We want them to be the next link, and to feel part of the congregation.”

–Jaclyn Turner