Cross-posted to JewishBoston.com.
People tend to use religion at certain points in life: baby namings, bar mitzvahs, funerals. When Cheryl and I got married, we wanted a Jewish wedding. Having a toddler, however, wasn’t a life stage we thought we’d associate with religion—diapers, sippies and tantrums aren’t exactly compatible with deep spiritual reflection. But it turned out that it was the toddler years that established us as a religious—maybe not Shulchan Aruch religious, but still nominally religious—family.
When Cheryl and I met, I was the more religious one. Being Jewish was important to both of us in theory, but I was the one going to synagogue on Saturday mornings and scanning restaurant menus for the most kosher option. After we got married, I kept going to Shabbat morning services usually by myself, as I’d been doing since college. At first, having a baby didn’t change much: we were a little more likely to go to synagogue (or not) as a family, but little Hannah just slept in her car seat and we participated as adults. But once our daughter started being awake, making noise, and needing to move around, it seemed like none of us were going to be going to services much.
I’d been aware that somewhere, down the hall in the religious school wing I’d never been in, there were programs during services for children, but I didn’t know exactly what. So, one Saturday morning, when Hannah was about one-and-a-half, we nervously wandered down there. A guitar-playing woman named Dale welcomed us, who told us that Hannah was exactly the right age for Tot Shabbat. Actually, she was a little too young to really participate, but she’d grow, and with that welcome, we became regulars.
Fortunately, we were in the right place at the right time. Soon, there was a new religious school director excited to improve things, and a new service leader, Julia, who ran a business teaching toddler music-and-movement classes. Together they came up with a routine that infused Jewish content into a toddler music class as good as any, and attendance grew. Sure, we could sign our kid up for some sort of secular class on Saturday mornings, but now we had an activity for the children, lunch at kiddush, a small but growing community of like-minded families to socialize with, and still got to, in a way, go to services. The maintenance staff even began setting up a preschool-sized table at kiddush. If nothing else, we were getting our money’s worth out of our synagogue dues!
And that’s how the funny thing happened: we’d established the rhythm of observing Shabbat, of going to synagogue as being the default thing to do on Saturday morning, and so became a Shabbat-observant family. We knew we succeeded when Hannah once told us that God is candy, because at the end of services every week the children were called up to the bimah of the main sanctuary to get a piece of candy—hopefully not the end of her spiritual development, but a successful early start! We aren’t shomer shabbat by strict standards in terms of all the negative rules of not driving, cooking, or watching TV; but, at least for us, focusing on the positive commandments of celebrating Shabbat with a family dinner and participating in a synagogue community is a more compelling path. And we’ve cemented this as a foundation of our family life.
Of course, children get older. Hannah is starting third grade, well into the school-age years, and she spent part of this past summer at pluralistic but religious Jewish camp. Our son is four, and in another year we’ll have moved fully out of the Tot Shabbat cohort. I’m not sure what comes next. Will I really want to go to the main sanctuary service in the same synagogue, now that I get to? Can Shabbat at synagogue ever seem as special to older children with more sophisticated interests, not to mention already going to Hebrew school during the week? How do we maintain a sense of community as the ranks of synagogue members with children the same age as ours swells to include many who weren’t interested in Jewish observance until a bar or bat mitzvah came on the horizon? Nevertheless, I’m sure that in celebrating Shabbat from our children’s earliest years, it will always seem like a way of life that is normal to them and be something we can come back to.
So, a two part message: First, if you’re a family with a toddler, don’t be afraid to check out what’s going on down the hall in that religious school wing. And even if you happen to show up on a week when nothing is going on because you’re not yet familiar with the mysterious machinations of the school year calendar, and even if you have to leave early because your kid had a tantrum and spilled the juice: persevere, try and find a community, and Shabbat may become one of the best parts of having young children. Secondly, if you’re a synagogue, offer these programs, publicize them well, and don’t forget the little details like a good place to change diapers or refill a sippy cup that make all the different to a frazzled parent—compared to engaging, say, pre-teens, it doesn’t take much to make a lasting impact.