Tot Shabbat conjures images of little kids shouting “Shabbat Shalom” and nibbling challah. But the impact of these programs goes far beyond babies and bim bam. My dissertation, Exploring Tot Shabbat: A Study on Tot Shabbat Programs and their Impact on Engagement in Jewish Life for Families with Young Children revealed Tot Shabbat’s surprising power to support grown-up learning and help shape adult Jewish identity. I studied hundreds of ‘Tot Shabbat’ celebrations (Shabbat worship experiences designed for children 0-6 and their families) and this is some of what I learned that informs my approach.
Tot Shabbat Teaches “Hands On” Jewish Practice
In two distinct interviews, I had conversations with mothers of 2 year olds who told me in strikingly similar detail about how they learned how to navigate lighting shabbat candles with their children by experiencing how they involved the children in the ritual at tot shabbat. They each told me that without the example from Tot Shabbat, they don’t think they’d have the home-based ritual that they do. Interestingly, one of these mothers was a rabbi married to a rabbi living in a major city while the other was a convert who didn’t know any Jewish people until she met her husband, living in a rural area. It was striking to me that the parent with the close community and academic training felt similarly ill equipped as a parent with so much less experience.
Tot Shabbat Connections Create Community
Tot Shabbat facilitates those “aha” moments that reframe Jewish tradition as relevant, meaningful, and doable. Watching clergy welcome their squirmy toddler to the bimah leaves a lasting impression. Discussing parenting in a time of rising anti-semitism provides reassurance they’re not alone. This peer support matters deeply. Jewish parents often feel isolated and uncertain about passing down traditions. They crave community with like-minded families. Tot Shabbat delivers. 98% of participants I studied report forming social connections through their ‘Tot Shabbat’ program. That social network encourages Jewish choices long after children age out of Tot Shabbat. Research shows parent relationships strongly influence family religious practice. As one rabbi observed: Tot Shabbat friendship circles become Bar Mitzvah guest lists years later.
Why does this parent-centric approach resonate so powerfully?
In Jewish Engagement from Birth: A Blueprint for Outreach to First-Time Parents, Mark Rosen explored the ways that first-time parents are Jewishly engaged. He highlights the importance of outreach to families with young children as a critically important window of time during which parents are uniquely receptive to Jewish programs that address their needs as parents. The dramatic transition in the personal and professional identities of first-time parents creates families that are actively seeking support.
New parenthood marks a vulnerability. Adults question their identity and seek new communities. A developmental sweet spot emerges where young families are primed for impactful Jewish engagement.
Seek to Understand Their Needs
Synagogues have a vital opportunity to meet the needs of both parents and children during this life stage. But it requires viewing Tot Shabbat as a form of adult education in addition to its’ role in early learning and outreach. With intentionality, it can facilitate meaningful adult learning about Jewish parenting, holiday rituals, and transmitting values. It offers connection to clergy, education directors, and other synagogue resources.
Make Meaningful Connections
Tot Shabbat is not ‘just’ for tots- and maximizing the opportunity requires viewing parents and caregivers as learners too. Get to know the grown-ups in your community. What motivates their attendance? What challenges are they facing? Where do they feel disconnected? Then, identify existing synagogue resources that could provide meaning and support.
A powerful way that Jewish institutions can impact a family’s Jewish identity is to create programs that foster relationships between parents and children. The choices parents make are strongly influenced by their peer relationships, and successful programs support the development of such bonds. Rosen explains “It is critical to build in time for social relationships for a number of reasons: because parents feel isolated; because new parents are seeking friendships with other couples who have recently had children; because parents are stressed and seek emotional and practical support; because parents are looking for information from others about a variety of new concerns; and because the baby’s grandparents are likely to live in another state”. The Jewish education and experiences that institutions can provide to children will never be complete if only aimed to reach the child: “Parents are the most important Jewish educators; they should understand, and the Jewish community must recognize, that parents need to be the primary transmitters of Jewish identity”.
Extend Engagement Opportunities
Create opportunities for engagement tailored to your Tot Shabbat adults- and invite them to connect with the congregation at large. Briefly share how their family can continue learning and connecting based on interests they’ve expressed. Extend personal invitations to engage beyond your Tot Shabbat environment.
Demonstrate Your Awareness
The key is relationship-building, not one-size-fits-all content. Show that your community “gets” this stage of their journey. Offer relevant, responsive ways to nurture their growth as Jewish parents and adults. Soon, they’ll view your synagogue as an indispensable partner in raising their family. Childhood spiritual development hinges on adult role models. By nurturing parents, Tot Shabbat builds bonds across generations. The dividends over a Jewish lifetime are immeasurable.
Tot Shabbat Programs Aren’t Just for Kids
Tot Shabbat programs are “for” the children in the same way that a child’s first pediatrician’s appointments are “for” the children. While it is certainly imperative that a child’s physical wellness is monitored, the majority of the appointment is spent in dialogue between the doctor and the child’s caregiver(s). A relationship is established or nurtured so that the parents understand the scope of the doctor’s expertise and various services the office provides. The parents ask questions that help the doctor not only address their concerns, but better understand the background and perspectives this family is bringing into their parenting. Since 2010, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that mothers be screened for post-partum depression during an infant’s well-child visits because, while the pediatrician certainly can’t treat this condition, a pediatrician is in a unique role to be able to identify it, as that mother’s wellness cannot be detached from the wellness of a child. Often, the Tot Shabbat leader is an expert and the synagogue is like the doctor’s office, with the benefit of a built-in referral network.
If your congregation seeks to attract, engage, and sustain relationships with children and families, I’d love to help. Book a free connection call so we can explore how I can support your sacred work.