Exploring Tot Shabbat: A Study on Tot Shabbat Programs and Their Effect on the Engagement in Jewish Life of Families with Young Children
Exploring Tot Shabbat
‘Miss Emily’ evolved into ‘Dr. Teck’ when this dissertation was successfully defended by the Gratz College faculty in Spring 2018. It is the first contemporary research to be conducted on the topic.
NewCAJE’s Journal, The Jewish Educator, featured an article detailing the research: The Impact and Influence of “Tot Shabbat” Participation
‘Tot Shabbat’ is a term that is the most widely used title of programs that synagogues offer young children and their families. This is not the best term- but it is the most widely known.
What is Tot Shabbat?
Tot Shabbat is an experience during which music, prayer, and Jewish ritual play a significant role as young children and their families gather to learn about and celebrate Jewish life and community. Tot Shabbat is a gateway into Jewish life and an opportunity to build community and foster relationships with members of that community. The vast majority of participants (more than 90%) agreed or strongly agreed that Tot Shabbat “provides a positive Jewish experience for my family, helps connect my family to Jewish community, encourages my family to participate in Jewish life, provides opportunities to create and nurture relationships with members of the synagogue community, and helps connect my family to Jewish ritual.” Most participants (more than 75%) also agreed or strongly agreed that Tot Shabbat “teaches my family about Shabbat, makes me think about my family’s Jewish practice, helps connect my family to Jewish prayer, influences the way my family engages with Judaism, and teaches my family about Jewish concepts and beliefs.”
Tot Shabbat is an experience rich with opportunities. All Tot Shabbats can provide connections with other Jewish families, relationships with Jewish professionals, and knowledge about Judaism and how it might be relevant to the stage of life that families with young children are experiencing. The specific nature of the opportunities varies by community and depends upon the community’s goals, facility, and culture; they might offer early childhood learning options, recruit for adult learning options, or facilitate chavura groups that create support networks—the list of possible offerings could be endless. Like worship experiences for any population, the services likely share a skeleton, but the actual experience is conducted by leaders in a unique physical environment for a community of individuals, so each community offers its own special variances while providing a familiar overall experience to participants. The participants each bring their own background, expectations, and personal preferences to the experience, which also frames their perceptions.
Want the ‘standing on one foot’ version of what I learned about Tot Shabbat?
Here is a quick, animated summary of findings
I have always loved attending, leading, and learning about Tot Shabbat services.
Some of my earliest childhood memories are as a toddler at Shabbat services, led by a warm, enthusiastic Rabbi who I adored encouraging me to sing, dance, and learn.
I spent the first decade of my professional career balancing work and school- I worked as an early childhood educator, songleader, musician, and service leader in the Jewish community while I pursued each of my college degrees. My work was a laboratory of sorts- I was able to take immediate actions to experiment and refine my understanding and abilities of how, what, and why I should work, learn, and teach in the Jewish community. The culminating projects of my graduate degrees were incredible opportunities to formally research my areas of focus.
I researched to better understand what is typically available at ‘Tot Shabbat’ services in Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and nondenominational communities. I discovered (to my delight) that participation in ‘Tot Shabbat’ programs yield enormous impact on the participants.
I am so excited to share my findings, and thrilled that through extensive analysis and data collection, I have insights that will help communities improve their efforts to engage families with young children. It is a privilege to support the sacred work of communities that want to improve and increase their efforts to engage and educate young children and their families.
I am filled with enormous gratitude for the many kind, generous people who supported me as I journeyed through the entirety of my academic career as a student that guided me to this conclusion. In particular, I would like to thank the following experts in the fields related to my topic whose work I admired so much that I reached out directly to them, who were willing to share their expertise:
Dr. Marsha Bryan Edelman, Dr. Rela Geffen and Dr. Miriam Feinberg.
Friends and colleagues who provided feedback and support in many ways: Rabbi PJ Schwartz, Alison Westermann, and Dr. Anita Meinbach.
Ellen Allard, Ellen Dreskin, Maxine Handelman, Nancy Bossov, Dr. John Bartkowski, Rabbi Elyse Frischman, Rabbi Paula Feldstein and Dr. Mark Rosen.The students, faculty and staff at Gratz College, particularly those who were willing to share their time, experience and feedback with me as I journeyed through this project: Dr. Shirah Hecht, Dr. Joshua Gutoff, Dr. Eliyahu Krigel, Dr. Sandra Lilienthal, Dr. Joseph Davis, and Dr. Saul Wachs.
Additionally- I have an enormous debt of gratitude to the tens of thousands of families with young children with whom I’ve celebrated Shabbat in the past two decades. The experiences that many communities have invited me to facilitate as a musician, service leader, and early childhood educator guided my path and sparked my passion for exploring, improving, and increasing the ways our community foster Jewish learning and living.