I had a bat mitzvah. And a confirmation. And then a Jewish wedding. And now a toddler. That makes her Jewish, right? I’m realizing that traditions, which reassure children in their permanence and predictability, require intention and infusions of momentum from adults in order to maintain and sustain. Although we’ve gone to tot Shabbat here and there, we have yet to join a Jewish community. We have holiday-focused gatherings with friends and family in our home, but no brick-and-mortar establishment to gravitate toward for a broader sense of Jewish community. As toddlerhood brushes up against the school years, I realize my charge: make a decision about what kind of religious upbringing we’re going to instill in this kiddo before it becomes ever more inexorable.
Our daughter is almost 3; she’s reserved in group settings but your typical chatterbox at home. It’s a toss-up whether her bedtime reading selection will be a PJ Library book or a mishmash of others. I don’t know that she has any clue what being Jewish means, or that it’s something connected to her, but when her doll falls, she always kisses its “keppe” (Yiddish for “head.”) In the last several weeks, in an attempt to dissect what appeals to us and draws us in, we attended three tot Shabbat services in three different congregations in Boston. Here are a few of my takeaways:
- The first tot Shabbat required the least amount of commuting from our home and was located in a small, accessible venue. There were no more than a dozen families gathered on the floor to sing Hebrew songs and share reflections on gratitude. We felt warmly welcomed. The focus was foremost on toddler comfort—props, songs, play, brevity—and I left happy yet wanting more for my own intellectual, and even spiritual, engagement.
- The second tot Shabbat involved a post-dinner drive with relatively easy parking to a sweltering sanctuary space. The rabbi was affable and comfortable interacting with newcomers and young children, played a guitar, read a story, and engaged in some imaginative play, which incorporated Shabbat prayers and themes. We enjoyed a friendly kiddush afterward, relished by the handful of tots and parents. Given the low turnout and unfathomable heat, I don’t know how fully we got a sense for the place, but it was certainly friendly, and we were greeted enthusiastically.
- Last, we attended a leave-work-early-to-get-there-in-time service that required some traffic-filled navigation to convene in a small chapel with a number of families, many of whom were regular attendees to this monthly gathering of young families. Some of the songs were identical to those from the previous two, but one distinction was that the rabbi told a story (with some light referencing to notes). This simulated to me some of the best parts of the Jewish rabbinic tradition that I miss—hearing old parables shared in a communal setting. The little ones were not fully enraptured and silent, but the rabbi did an estimable job of captivating attention and trying to be engaging. It was the first time my own imagination was engaged, and I liked that feeling. This was followed by a community dinner in which numerous individuals greeted and welcomed us.
Having completed these rapid-fire tot Shabbat visits, I’m considering whether there are more congregations we should investigate. I came away from the trio realizing the obvious—that spending more time with the congregation was helpful in getting a fuller sense of the community, even though I appreciated the efficiency of the shorter interactions. With more fall holidays on the horizon, we have additional opportunities to engage with these communities, which we’re looking forward to.
As much as I’m motivated to find a formal Jewish community to raise our daughter in, I’m still looking for a place that stimulates me. The third option came closest, and now I need to consider whether it was an artifact of my own acclimation to attending Shabbat services or something specific to the community. But with my own increased comfort in attending Shabbat services in different venues, I have witnessed my daughter becoming more interactive in these group settings. Perhaps a new habit is forming; my husband and I have become more articulate about stating our interest in finding a community where we feel enriched, and factoring the programming for young children through that lens, rather than the other way around.
Which worship communities do you feel most comfortable in with your young kids? Share your experiences in the comments below!
Elizabeth Russo lives with her family in Jamaica Plain and enjoys collecting new experiences to share with others. Her full-time work combines public health research and clinical care.
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