Tot Shabbat is one of my favorite ways to celebrate our special day of rest- personally and professionally. It is a time when young children and their families can be welcomed into a warm and joyful Jewish community. Tot Shabbat is a form of contemporary Jewish education that is very multipurpose: it serves as early childhood education, family education, prayer education, young family engagement, outreach, worship, and ritual.
What is Tot Shabbat?
Tot Shabbat is an experience during which music, prayer, and Jewish ritual play a significant role as young children and their families gather to learn about and celebrate Jewish life and community.
In 2018, I studied over 300 “Tot Shabbat” programs for my doctoral dissertation. Through surveys and interviews, I researched 146 leaders and 113 adults who participated in at least 4 “Tot Shabbat” programs with their children to understand their experience and gauge their impact.
Tot Shabbat meets the needs of contemporary Jewish families
For most of Jewish history, young children learned about Shabbat observance, prayer, and ritual by observing it on a weekly basis. These norms have shifted enormously in the past century. Due to religious freedom in America, Jews have enjoyed the opportunity to acculturate and publicly participate in non-Jewish cultural and educational experiences, which has fundamentally changed the way Jewish children grow into their Jewish identity.
Tot Shabbat supports Jewish parents raising young children
Tot Shabbat offers a meaningful experience where children can learn about the beauty of Jewish life and rituals alongside their loved ones. The joint participation of parents with their children is a critical and defining characteristic of Tot Shabbat. One of the primary goals of this practice is to educate adult participants about age-appropriate Shabbat rituals and activities to practice with their little ones, as well as to help Jewish parents develop a community network of peers who are in a similar life stage, raising Jewish children.
Tot Shabbat greatly enriches Jewish families and communities
Tot Shabbat programs can help build strong communities and foster relationships with members of those communities.
After completing my Tot Shabbat survey, I discovered:
90% agreed that Tot Shabbat “provides a positive Jewish experience for my family, helps connect my family to Jewish community, encourages my family to participate in Jewish life, provides opportunities to create and nurture relationships with members of the synagogue community, and helps connect my family to Jewish ritual.”
Over 75% also agreed that Tot Shabbat “teaches my family about Shabbat, makes me think about my family’s Jewish practice, helps connect my family to Jewish prayer, influences the way my family engages with Judaism, and teaches my family about Jewish concepts and beliefs.”
Tot Shabbat is a gateway, participation increases overall engagement in Jewish life
As part of my doctoral research, survey participants were provided a list of twenty-six examples of engaging in Jewish life and asked: “Please indicate if you participate in any of the Jewish engagement examples described below. Please indicate whether or not you believe that Tot Shabbat attendance encourages your participation.”
89% of respondents report that Tot Shabbat participation influenced them to take additional action steps to practice Judaism.
The most common responses from this survey indicate that Tot Shabbat participation influences social interactions among other Jewish families with young children and encourages singing Jewish songs outside of Tot Shabbat. Wonderfully, each of these two practices are powerful ingredients of establishing a personal Jewish identity.
Tot Shabbat can build supportive communities
Tot Shabbat programs can provide opportunities to connect with other Jewish families, form relationships with Jewish professionals, and gain knowledge about Judaism relevant to the stages of life that young Jewish children are experiencing. The specific nature of Tot Shabbat opportunities varies by community and depends upon the community’s goals, facility, and culture. For example, the community could offer early childhood learning options, adult learning options, or facilitate chavura groups that create support networks. The list of possible offerings related to Tot Shabbat could be endless. Like worship services for any population, the services likely share a similar skeleton, but the specific experiences cater to the unique environment of each community.
Tot Shabbat offers an engaging and diverse experience for everyone involved
Throughout my research, I found that there is only one common prayer (Sh’ma) included in most services, in addition to opening and closing prayers and songs. Additionally, English, Hebrew, echo, movement, and zipper (fill-in-the-blank) songs are often led by adults who play instruments and chant Hebrew prayers. Most programs lead some of the same songs in each session, and some of the same songs shared at Tot Shabbat are also led in other worship settings. The recitation of the blessings for candles, juice, challah, and children is typically included, as well as a Torah story or teaching about the weekly Torah portion. Dramatic storytelling and books are often shared as children use “toy” ritual objects, and oneg or a snack is provided at the conclusion of the program.
Tot Shabbat can lead to increased synagogue membership
76% of the survey respondents are members of the synagogue where they attend Tot Shabbat, while 12% intend to become members. Tot Shabbat Programs are ripe opportunities to attract, engage, and sustain a community of families raising children. If your Jewish community wants to start or upgrade its “Tot Shabbat” program to meet that goal, I’m here to help.
One powerful and enjoyable way to enrich a child’s introduction to Jewish life is with music. Learn how to create meaningful worship experiences for children with my new course, Songleading For Kiddos.