I went to a tot Shabbat service last Friday. Tot Shabbat is what synagogues usually call a Friday night religious service experience tailored for young children and their parents. There was music and singing; the half-dozen or so couples of parents sat in a circle, clapping and enjoying the singing, quietly observing, or anxiously searching the room for their toddler. The kids did what kids do, mostly run around. Then there was a potluck dinner followed by some unstructured socializing.
I don’t like synagogues. Sorry, but I don’t. I grew up a secular Israeli Jew and I find in religious service little that is of meaning to me. I also did not enjoy this particular tot Shabbat service that much either. People were nice enough, for sure. But there were little things that irked me (like the way Americans pronounce the word Shabbat as if it rhymes with Chabad – Shabbad is here, Shabbad is here… one song went). More significantly perhaps was the possible implication that, since this kind of religious service is the one way of being Jewish that is sanctioned by Jewish institutions, it is also the most authentic, or truest way of being Jewish. Was this the message I want to send to my son?
Both my wife and I identify as Jewish, and we raise our two-year-old Jewish plainly by doing the same things we did as we were growing up. My wife likes lighting Shabbat candles; I like cooking and eating certain foods that some may consider Jewish; we all speak Hebrew at home. So on the few occasions that I went to a synagogue since I moved to my new hometown a year ago, it was not in search for Jewish education for my child. It was primarily to indulge my wife who, in turns, seeks out these experiences primarily as a way of finding new friends (which we did).
As we drove back home last Friday I was wondering: from the standpoint of North American synagogues, what are some other ways to reach out to and engage the likes of me – Jews with young children who have strong cultural connections but little or no affinity to religion? I think that socializing is key. The literal meaning of the Hebrew phrase beit knesset (synagogue) is house of gathering, not house of prayer. I wonder what are some other ways in which synagogues can serve as venues for socializing, in ways that de-emphasize religious content for those who do not want it, while maintaining the religious content for those who do.
One of the things that parents with young children look for are play date opportunities – we need help finding and connecting with other like-minded people, with children of a similar age (who have similar nap times!). Perhaps coordinating play dates is one function that synagogues have overlooked. These could happen in the synagogue, but would probably work better outside of the institution, in a public space. A member’s home might work well, for example. At the end of the day, the thing to remember is that outreach is about the individuals served (me, in this case) and their needs (play dates, in this case), and not about synagogues and their needs. If we start and end outreach with the aim of growing a more welcoming, inclusive, and open Jewish community (rather than with membership and programs inside the institution) then secular Jews like me with young children could potentially be an untapped population.