Summer Tot Shabbat Hop aims at attracting young families
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Summer Tot Shabbat Hop aims at attracting young families

Congregations coordinate kid-friendly services

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PJ Library volunteer Eva Jakob reads to children. courtesy PJ Library

Tot Shabbat services during the year are generally well attended, but for that reason alone they may not appeal to unaffiliated young families. Also, these families do not often get an opportunity to sample such events at various synagogues to give them a chance to find their comfort zones.

Linda Ripps, coordinator of The PJ Library, found a way to change that.

“Each week during the summer, a different congregation will host a Tot Shabbat, or celebration of the Sabbath, for families with children up to six years old,” said Ripps, the driving force behind the community’s Tot Shabbat Hopping program.

The PJ Library and Shalom Baby sponsor the initiative, which began on July 1 at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus. The synagogue welcomed some 35 people to its Tot Shabbat service ““ most of them first-timers. According to the congregation’s rabbi, Arthur Weiner, it was an extremely successful evening.

“The event was about breaking barriers and forming relationships that will help young families find their way to Jewish organizations and especially synagogues,” he said. “The PJ Library has the most extensive contacts with young families. The cooperation between the [library] and the synagogues is the proper model for engaging them.”

The PJ Library was created by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and is administered in our area by the Kehillah Partnership. It is a Jewish literacy program that sends free Jewish-themed books and CDs to families with children between the ages of 6 months and 5½ years. In Bergen County, approximately 2,000 children receive books from the program.

Ripps first heard about the Tot Shabbat Hopping program from a colleague in Austin, Texas. Later, she reached out to Shalom Baby coordinator Nancy Bach, suggesting that the two work together to bring the program to Bergen County.

An outreach program of the Synagogue Leadership Initiative of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, Shalom Baby welcomes parents and their newborns or newly adopted children into the Jewish community.

Ripps believed the summer would be the ideal time to launch the program, despite the fact that many families go on vacation during July and August.

Tot Shabbat Hopping summer schedule
Friday, July 15, 5:30 p.m. ““ 6:15 p.m.
Temple Beth El,
221 Schraalenburgh Road, Closter

Saturday, July 16, 10:30 a.m.
Temple Emanuel,
558 High Mountain Road, Franklin Lakes

Friday, July 22, 6 p.m. ““ 6:30 p.m.
Temple Sinai,
1 Engle Street, Tenafly

Friday, July 29, 6:15 p.m.
Temple Beth El,
300 75th Street, North Bergen

Saturday, July 30, 9:30 a.m.
Temple Emeth,
1666 Windsor Rd., Teaneck

Friday, August 5, 6 p.m.
Temple Emanuel,
87 Overlook Drive, Woodcliff Lake

Friday, August 12, 6:30 p.m.
Congregation Beth Sholom,
354 Maitland Ave, Teaneck

Saturday, August 13, 10:45 a.m.
Congregation B’nai Israel,
53 Palisade Ave., Emerson

Friday, August 19, 6 p.m.
Temple Avodat Shalom,
385 Howland Ave., River Edge

Saturday, August 27, 11 a.m.
Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel,
1010 Norma Ave., Fair Lawn

“Many others remain at home,” she said. In addition, Tot Shabbat programs held during the school year are likely to be well-attended by synagogue members, “and that might be overwhelming to newcomers.”

“This is for families who are not yet connected,” she said. “They face a whole lot of barriers. They don’t know anyone; they may not know how to dress or understand what Tot Shabbat is.”

Ripps said her many years working in the Jewish community taught her that “even the most welcoming synagogues do not see themselves through a newcomer’s eyes.” But if you say, for example, that The PJ Library “will be there and we can go together, there’s strength in numbers,” she said.

Reaching their target audience was a challenge, said Ripps, noting that she and her group’s outreach coordinator, Abby Leipsner, sent e-mails to congregational rabbis and presidents, as well as to synagogue executive directors, preschool directors, educational directors, and membership chairs.

“We expected two to four responses,” she said about the quest for congregations willing to host summer Tot Shabbat programs. Instead, she heard back from 12 congregations and “found a way to include them all.”

The next challenge was “to spread the word to those least connected to the community,” she said. This was accomplished through organizational newsletters, Facebook and Meetup pages, and a variety of websites targeting young families.

“We didn’t know who would come,” said Ripps, “but we agreed we’d be satisfied if [every congregation] had one new family.”

Organizers stressed the importance of user-friendly signage as well as personal greeters. Synagogues were also prompted to provide attendees with handouts listing each synagogue’s family-friendly activities.

“We also decided to have a staff person at every program to welcome people on behalf of Shalom Baby and PJ Library and encourage [attendees] to stay and meet each other,” said Ripps.

“Everything we do is toward building community,” she noted.

Equally important, “We want to give young families a chance to try on the different personas of our varied congregations,” she said, pointing out that participating synagogues include eight Conservative synagogues, “ranging from liberal to not so liberal,” and four Reform synagogues. “They’re all over the map geographically,” she said.

Parents will be asked to evaluate each program, and the PJ Library will provide the names of local families to participating synagogues so they can send them invitations to future events or put them on the congregational mailing list.

Ripps noted that while this is a pilot program, several congregations that are not part of the summer program have already expressed interest in hosting programs in the Fall.

Rabbi Sharon Litwin, associate rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, welcomed about 40 people to the shul’s Tot Shabbat program on July 9.

“There were 12 families, including babies and children up to age 8, and parents and grandparents,” she said. Of these, six people had previously attended the program.

“The program is a great idea,” said Litwin. “It gives young families a chance to connect Jewishly during the summer when most shuls stop any kind of children’s programming. It opens the doors to people who may not walk into a shul until their child is ready for religious school, and it allows for like-minded young families to meet each other and, hopefully, make friends within the community.”

For more information about Tot Shabbat Hopping, Shalom Baby, or The PJ Library, contact Nancy Bach, NancyB1@ujannj.org, (201) 820-3900, ext. 320; or Linda Ripps, pjlibrary@yjcc.org or (201) 666-6610, ext. 381. To enroll children in The PJ Library, visit www.pjlibrary.org.

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