Exploring Tot Shabbat

A Study on Tot Shabbat Programs and Their Effect on the Engagement in Jewish Life of Families with Young Children

‘Miss Emily’ evolved into ‘Dr. Emily’ when this dissertation was successfully defended before the Gratz College faculty in Spring 2018. It is the first contemporary research to be conducted on the topic.

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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. Tot Shabbat is a gateway into Jewish life and an opportunity to build community and foster relationships with members of that community. The vast majority of participants (more than 90%) agreed or strongly 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.” Most participants (more than 75%) also agreed or strongly 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 an experience rich with opportunities. All Tot Shabbats can provide connections with other Jewish families, relationships with Jewish professionals, and knowledge about Judaism and how it might be relevant to the stage of life that families with young children are experiencing. The specific nature of the opportunities varies by community and depends upon the community’s goals, facility, and culture; they might offer early childhood learning options, recruit for adult learning options, or facilitate chavura groups that create support networks—the list of possible offerings could be endless. Like worship experiences for any population, the services likely share a skeleton, but the actual experience is conducted by leaders in a unique physical environment for a community of individuals, so each community offers its own special variances while providing a familiar overall experience to participants. The participants each bring their own background, expectations, and personal preferences to the experience, which also frames their perceptions.

My copy of Emily Aronoff's groundbreaking dissertation is dog-eared, full of underlinings and post-it notes. It lives together with the article she wrote for NewCAJE in Summer 2018, which is also full of my notes and questions. Emily tackled a topic which many have wondered about but few have researched: what is Tot Shabbat, and more importantly, what does it do for families? Emily goes further, looking at the leaders of Tot Shabbat, and what they need to know and look out for. This incredible work informs the training I provide to teens learning to lead Tot Shabbat. Exploring Tot Shabbat: A Study on Tot Shabbat Programs and Their Effects on the Engagement in Jewish Life of Families with Young Children provides invaluable guidance to Tot Shabbat leaders and to communities that seek to begin or improve the community they are building for, and with, families with young children. I loved this dissertation so much I made Emily autograph my copy!
Maxine Handleman
Director of Family Life & Learning

Why are you so obssesed with ' Tot Shabbat', Emily?

I have always loved attending, leading, and learning about Tot Shabbat services. I was a sensitive young child with a challenging home environment. My ‘synagogue life’ was a safe ‘home away from home’ that I desperately needed. As I reflect on my first few decades- most of my warm memories center around my Jewish community.   Some of my earliest childhood memories are as a toddler at Shabbat services, led by a warm, enthusiastic Rabbi who I adored encouraging me to sing, dance, and learn.

I spent the first decade of my professional career balancing work and school- I worked as an early childhood educator, songleader, musician, and service leader in the Jewish community while I pursued each of my college degrees. My work was a laboratory of sorts- I was able to take immediate actions to experiment and refine my understanding and abilities of how, what, and why I should work, learn, and teach in the Jewish community.

The line of work that I chose- working to support Jewish communities and their leadership to improve their abilities to engage families and nurture children- is a direct result of the fact that the exceptionally engaging, nurturing opportunities that were afforded to me in Jewish community were a primary source of safety, validation, approval, and security. 

The culminating projects of my graduate degrees were incredible opportunities to formally research my areas of focus. Now- after 20+ years, I’ve concluded my formal education. I have come to realize that my passion and fascination for studying this topic is extremely critical to the development of my ‘inner child’. I am incredibly grateful to be able to continue to immerse myself in this work as I enjoy the process, the insights, and the impact on a professional and personal level. 

Implications for Practice

The data highlight the significant impact and potential of synagogue programs that invite families with young children to celebrate Shabbat. The testimonies of the participants and documentation offered by the literature reinforce the uniquely powerful combination of traits that synagogue programs for families with young children typically maintain as they:

  • Facilitate opportunities for families to create and maintain peer relationships the participants actively seek that can grow into an influential network.

  • Welcome family members who are candidates for membership to learn about the synagogue community without commitment while beginning relationships with synagogue leaders and staff and (sometimes) sharing information about other opportunities to participate.

Tot Shabbat programs are encouraging families to engage in Jewish life and the participants are generally happy with their experiences. However, the data collected from the survey questions regarding challenges and the leaders’ perspectives highlight areas of opportunity. The families are most challenged by logistical, practical concerns (fig. 14). Synagogues that wish to maximize participation in their programs need to communicate with their program’s potential participants and address their concerns: Can small children reach the sink in the bathroom? How can a family with multiple children of diverse ages participate? Are programs scheduled with regards to the bedtimes of the children? Are the candles and matches out of the toddlers’ reach? Are the electrical outlets covered? Are choking hazards entirely removed from the environment (hard candies, balloons, etc.)?

Similarly, some of the adult participants shared serious concerns (sensory issues, children with anaphylactic allergies, special needs diagnoses, etc.) through the survey and interviews. Parents also shared that they had never thought to share their challenges with the host synagogue’s leadership, even when they perceived those leaders to be people who would be open

to feedback. The communities that host Tot Shabbat programs and their leadership could greatly improve their participant experiences by establishing a process that invites them to provide feedback regarding such concerns.

Both data populations shared concerns about the participant’s behavior (both children and adults) and the ways that they engage in the program, but relatively few research participants referred to any communication about or understanding of the community’s expectations of behavior. The research participants who did make reference to the sharing of these norms remarked on a two-step process (one, leadership decided what was acceptable and, two, communicated those guidelines) noticed an immediate and marked improvement. The communities who host Tot Shabbat programs and the leaders who facilitate them should decide and articulate the behavioral guidelines for all participants (not only children) to address this challenge.

In academic settings, the critical importance of developmentally appropriate practice is well established. However, the leaders, participants and experts all agree that Tot Shabbat leaders and their approach often reflect an insufficient understanding of the developmental capabilities of young children and often reflect that the developmental needs of the adult participants have not been sufficiently considered.

While a body of resources and research on “Tot Shabbat” or specifically about programs that seek to jointly engage young children and their families in Shabbat worship experience is still lacking, there is an immense body of literature and resources available that can help leaders understand and improve their roles, their leadership styles, and their programs. Leaders volunteered that what they found to be the most useful information or relevant skill set that informed their leadership came from an enormous diversity of experiences, some with more obvious connections to Tot Shabbat leadership than others: nursing, counseling, songleading, teaching, performing, parenting, and crafting, to name only a few. Similarly, best practices of program facilitation and educational pursuits like collaborative planning, goal setting, and assessment should be utilized by communities hoping to improve their Tot Shabbat programs. Each leader’s individual academic and personal background as well as their particular interests should inform the topics that can be pursued to develop their Tot Shabbat leadership ability.

When asked to define Tot Shabbat, none of the research participants described the opportunities to meaningfully impact the practice of families with young children or the significant adult education component of Tot Shabbat programs. An expanded understanding of Tot Shabbat programs and a recognition of their potential is a first step that communities can take in improving the ways that they invite families with young children to participate in their community. The consideration of the data presented in this report in conjunction with the literature highlighted will prove beneficial to those who choose to take intentional steps towards improvement.

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