Why Tot Shabbat is Great for Kids – and the Whole Family

September 12, 2019Robert Schurz

I love Tot Shabbat.

I’ve written before about how excited my wife and I are to bring our daughter into the world of Reform Judaism and expose her to its values. Tot Shabbat represents her first opportunity to take a step forward and create her own version of Judaism.

For the uninitiated, Tot Shabbat is a Friday or Saturday program series for families with children up to about age 6 that incorporates music and movement to introduce the history, values, and traditions of Judaism to a new generation. It brings the Shabbat experience alive in a fun and engaging way. Throughout the pandemic, many synagogues are still producing special Shabbat programs to engage children online and with safety measures, in person. 

But let’s be real.

Our daughter is just shy of 2. It’s impossible to know how much of the actual content she’s absorbing at her age. We’re not having deep, spiritual conversations with her about Judaism—we’re mostly just adoringly watching her as she dances around to the guitar-strumming and songs of the musical director—between requests for snacks and hugs.

Nonetheless, it’s a really important and formative experience for her. These 45 minutes every Saturday morning truly matter. We’re integrating Judaism into her life as a regular presence—and it’s a Judaism that’s warm, playful, and infused with the tolerant values and spirit of inquiry so important to us. Even in relating basic stories, like that of the Exodus and Moses’ liberation of the Hebrews from Egypt, we’re planting the seeds of a social conscience that teaches our children to always stand with the oppressed over the oppressors.

What’s more, we’re making our own connections with other young, Reform Jewish parents—and building our own Jewish community. It’s a perfect foot in the door, a way to experience Judaism alongside our daughter, but also independently from her. In meeting other like-minded parents, we are helping to build the framework in which we’ll live Jewishly as a family—the friends we’ll share our experiences with, the spaces we’ll inhabit together, and the memories we’ll create with one another.

We believe it’s important for Judaism to be a force that touches everyone in the family. The last thing we want is for temple to be merely a form of babysitting or daycare—a place we drop her off for a few hours but remain completely detached from what she’s learning, feeling, and experiencing.

As I’ve written before, my introduction to the world of organized Judaism has only really come about since she was born. Until then, my Jewish identity was based largely in the secular world and a shared set of cultural, social, and political values. But parenthood has given me an opportunity to relive old experiences and—through my daughter—explore those I never could before. Although I may not be hearing the stories and songs for the very first time like she is, I am connecting to Judaism in a way that I never did during my own childhood.

So we’re thrilled every time we hear Emma request one of her PJ Library books – Lotsa Matzah, Bubbe’s Got the Beat, and Purim Is Coming (seriously, the titles alone are worth the subscription), see her eyes light up and her mouth open wide as we light the Shabbat candles or watched her eat her first hamantaschen and ask for “More, more!” These moments are her first steps into a world that we will shape and experience as a family and a community. We see, in so many ways, bit by bit, she’s “coming online” as a young Jewish person, forming her identity and finding her own place within the Reform Jewish community.

Participate in family programs with a community close by – you can find a congregation near you.

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