Engaging Families on Shabbat


How do parents with young children feel about coming to your synagogue on Shabbat? Is the thought of bringing their children to services a possibility that engenders a sense of joy and anticipation, or a proposition that fills them with dread? For many parents, their desire to join in the ruach [spirit] and feeling of community that Shabbat services can provide is overpowered by their anxiety about the experience that they – and their children – will have. Will the need to keep their kids corralled and (relatively) quiet rob them of any opportunity to participate in the service? Will they have to spend their time fending off dirty looks from congregants who don’t want to hear the joyful noise of children in the Sanctuary?

Jewish parenting websites are awash in articles and blog posts detailing the concerns of parents who share these conflicting feelings. In one blog post on Kveller.com, a mom fretted, “even if I were to drag my kids to grown-up services (whether on Shabbat or at the High Holidays), I can’t imagine that it would be a reflective or relaxing experience. I expect that I’d need to shush them and ask them to sit still and bring them to the bathroom and back to our seats and so on. I have a hard enough time shushing myself and keeping myself sitting (or standing) still.”

How can kehillot make the prospect of coming to synagogue with the whole mishpacha [family] an attractive option for parents of young children?

Welcoming Families into the Sanctuary

Different families have different needs and expectations about Shabbat services. Some parents of young children find it important to participate in the main Shabbat service rather than attend a Tot Shabbat or family service. In recognition of this need, kehillot strive to make the Sanctuary experience more hospitable for families with kids. Some congregations make the Sanctuary more family-friendly by including a book rack with children’s literature, or by providing “busy boxes” with toys and Shabbat-friendly activities that can help to keep kids occupied and engaged during the service. Although making changes to the physical space in which the service is held is a good first step, it’s also crucial to make sure that all those who interact with families help create a warm and accepting atmosphere. For these congregations, it’s essential to educate synagogue leaders and “regulars” about why it’s critical to make sure that families with young children feel welcomed in services.

Creating Meaningful Experiences that are Just for Families

Some congregations choose to create meaningful learning and prayer experiences for families outside the Sanctuary, focusing on initiatives that are geared specifically for families with young children. At Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, for example, Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman has created a program called “Epic Shabbat,” which engages children and their parents in a “360-degree experience” that includes costumes, activities, and Torah study. Each session of Epic Shabbat ties into a pop-culture phenomenon that speaks to the interests of the program’s young participants, such as “Star Wars Shabbat” and “Lego Shabbat.” The program includes traditional Shabbat components such as a (family-friendly) service and kiddush, and provides opportunities for parents to expand their Jewish knowledge.

At the Park Slope Jewish Center in Brooklyn, Aileen Heiman, the Director of Youth Education and Family Programming, runs a program called Family Torah, which takes place as part of the kehilla’s Shabbat school program. Family Torah brings 3rd – 6th-graders together with their siblings and parents to learn and interact. Parents join with other parents to engage in chevruta (paired or group) study on the weekly parasha, and kids study in chevruta with their peers. Improv games and activities round out the experience and provide families with creative ways to engage with the content of the parasha.

One of the key elements of these initiatives is that they provide ways for parents to participate in meaningful learning and to expand their own Jewish knowledge. Kehillot are moving beyond an old model of family services in which parents engage chiefly as spectators while their children participate in services. In newer models like those pioneered at Beth Am and Park Slope Jewish Center, parents are invited to be an integral part of the prayer and learning experience, with care taken to provide opportunities for them to learn and engage on a level that’s meaningful for adults.

Moving Beyond the Synagogue

While some kehillot are focusing on creating new ways for families to experience Shabbat outside of the Sanctuary, other congregations are moving even further, geographically speaking, and seeding family Shabbat experiences outside the walls of the synagogue. Across the field of family engagement, organizations are focusing on creating neighborhood-based engagement opportunities for families. At Neveh Shalom in Portland, OR, Rabbi Eve Posen runs a program called “Fourth Friday” for families with children ages 0-6. On the fourth Friday of each month, families gather at Rabbi Posen’s home for an intimate Shabbat experience featuring an interactive service, songs, stories, and a potluck dinner. A related trend is for kehillot to organize home-based Shabbat programs that are hosted and led by parents, an initiative that empowers families with young children to create their own Jewish experiences. In this model, a kehilla enlists a family to host a Shabbat get-together at their home, and provides tools and guidance to help the family create a meaningful Shabbat experience for a small group of parents and children. The host family might invite a few other families for a potluck Shabbat dinner, and the kehilla might provide the host family with a guide to the Shabbat blessings, ideas for family activities and conversation starters, and the ritual objects needed for a traditional Shabbat dinner, such as challot and a Kiddush cup.

Whether your kehilla’s goal is to create a welcoming Sanctuary experience for families or to explore new program models, the time and effort you spend on engaging and including families is a valuable investment. God willing, the kids who squirm and wriggle during services today will be the leaders and the stewards of your kehilla tomorrow.

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