What we need to build Jewish roots for our youngest families

My husband and I knew we wanted to raise our future children with a deep commitment to Jewish community and tradition. I am a professor of Jewish studies, and my husband is a rabbi. Our bookshelves are lined with seforim (Jewish books). We are both highly educated, deeply committed and involved Jewish professionals. Like all naïve parents-to-be, we thought we had it all figured out. After all, how hard could it be?

Hard, it turns out.

Despite living in an area with a large and thriving Jewish community, and despite our many connections and years of education, we struggled to find the right support to help root our children meaningfully in our texts, traditions and communities. As our kids transformed from infants happily snuggling on our chests in shul to rambunctious toddlers trying to run across the bimah, attending the Shabbat services we had loved for years became challenging. 

Undaunted, we dove into children’s services and family programming across the city. I watched as my kids gleefully threw plastic vegetables into a pretend chicken soup during Tot Shabbat services and ran shrieking across a playground while adults sang Shabbat music in the background. We met some wonderful families as well. 

But as our children grew, we found ourselves feeling frustrated each week as Shabbat approached. None of the children’s programming was offered on a consistent weekly basis. We had relocated within the city to be within walking distance of our synagogue, but now found ourselves with no regular Shabbat routine and no community, scrambling each week to find something that would make it feel like Shabbat in a way that worked for our family. 

As our oldest entered preschool, the programs that did exist felt unsatisfying. These were lovely gatherings, fun and well-intentioned, but we wanted to help her build a deeper connection to Judaism than songs about dinosaurs visiting for Shabbat or kiddush cookies could provide. 

After years of looking outward, I decided it was time to build a different kind of Shabbat practice inside our home. 

My kids love stories, so I began with the idea of telling them a story from the weekly parsha. I decided to connect each parsha to a recipe and make that recipe for Shabbat dinner, hoping to bring the story to life for them through the food we ate. I began to build a new resource, Torah at the Table, where I shared these recipes and ideas for parsha-related activities with other young families. 

I will admit to some apprehension the first night that we sat down to Shabbat dinner and I asked my kids if they wanted to hear a story from the Torah, but I was shocked at the response. My kids listened with rapt attention to the story of Adam and Eve. They asked me to tell it over and over again, so frequently that we bought an illustrated children’s Bible. I began scouring our synagogue library for books related to the parsha. My children devoured the story of Noah and the Great Flood while we ate rainbow tacos; they scorned Esau trading his birthright for lentil soup, a meal they did not want to eat in the first place; and delighted in decorating star shaped cookies for the stars in Joseph’s dream. Planning a new recipe and sharing a story or activity connected to the parsha gave a focus to our family meals. 

The experience of creating these resources and sharing them with other families taught me two things. First, my experience is not unique. Many families are struggling to find ways to offer a meaningful Jewish upbringing for their youngest children. Second, our young children and families need structures that they can step into together or build inside their own homes. 

Abraham Joshua Heschel describes Shabbat as a “palace in time”, one that we build each week through our communal Shabbat rituals; but the rituals that work for older children and adults are not working for young families. Instead, we need to give parents new tools and resources to build the structures that work for them. While they can center on many aspects of Jewish life, not just Shabbat, those tools should feature the following:

  1. Consistency and structure. Young children thrive on routine. To create meaningful Jewish moments with our children, parents need models for how to carve out time and space consistently and in a pattern that is recognizable to our children. Intermittent programming cannot achieve this.
  1. Adaptability. Families with young children have unique needs and schedules that shift as their children grow. Two children in the same family may have different interests or learn best in different ways. Resources for these families need to be adaptable so that parents can adopt and tailor them in a way that works for this moment in their lives. 
  1. Community. Parenting young children is one of the most rewarding and exhausting jobs in the world. Parents need ways to connect with and support one another; they need Jewish community where they can participate and feel seen, both as parents and as individuals.
  1. Meaningful Jewish content. Our children can engage with a lot more than we sometimes realize. The Torah and our texts are filled with stories that our children can understand; there are many meaningful practices associated with Shabbat and holidays that even very young children can participate in. Rooting our children deeply in Jewish tradition from a young age and treating them as meaningful participants in the life of the family and/or community helps them integrate Judaism into their developing sense of self.
  1. Tools to nurture learning and curiosity. Children love stories and learn naturally through narrative and through interactive engagement. Parents need age-appropriate guides and resources — books, activities, etc. — so that they can engage their children around Jewish texts and traditions.
  1. Parental empowerment. Parents are their children’s first and most important teachers. Parents need ways to deepen their own learning and practice, so that they feel ownership over their own Jewish journeys and confident about how they want to bring their values, commitments, and passions into their family life. 

In addition to the programming offered by local synagogues and Jewish community centers, some incredible organizations have already begun to address this need on a national scale. PJ Library delivers books to Jewish families with young children every month, many of which help children connect to the cycles and rhythms of Jewish life, including Shabbat and holidays. In addition to stories, each book offers suggestions for ways that parents can engage their children further, through activities, recipes and even a PJ Library podcast. Although it is targeted at older children (ages 7+), Hadar offers a weekly parsha magazine called Devash, which includes art, talking points and parsha-related activities that families can do together. BimBam has curated short, animated videos about the Torah portion, suggestions for arts and crafts activities, as well as videos for parents about all kinds of issues that might arise while raising Jewish children. 

The main challenge with these existing resources is that they are piecemeal and can be hard to find. How can we address this?

First, we need a website that can aggregate and sort these resources for parents. Think of this as a one-stop shop for parents of young children, where they can search for the specific resources that would be most useful to them. With the right SEO, this website should be able to help parents find local, in-person activities, as well as tools that they can bring into their home and customize to their family’s needs. 

Second, we need to fund educators to build content and programming to fill in gaps that are not addressed by the resources that currently exist. These resources could be housed on the website itself and made freely available both to families and to local Jewish organizations that want to build more family programming. With the right analytics and tools for soliciting feedback from users, such a website would also allow us to collect data about what kind of support young families need and adapt our content development in response. 

One of our tradition’s deepest values is to both raise and educate Jewish children. In his commentary on Deuteronomy 6:7, which commands the people of Israel to teach God’s words to their children, Rashi says that everywhere the Torah refers to children (banim) it also means students (talmidim). It is a mistake to think that our children become students only later in life, as they approach adulthood. Pirkei Avot 5:21 teaches us that a five year old is ready to learn Torah. The upsherin, a hair cutting ceremony which marks the beginning of a (usually male) child’s education, often takes place around age three. Our tradition tells us that even our youngest children are ready to engage seriously with Judaism. We do them a disservice by not taking their interest and capacities seriously. 

Deborah Barer is an associate professor of religious studies and Jewish studies at Towson University, and a faculty fellow with Pardes North America.