Kids & Kibbitzing offers fun and learning for families

Once a month Joe Levin gets out of the suit he wears as San Francisco regional director at the Jewish Community Federation and transforms into Musical Mitzvah Man.

He puts on overalls, a tall "Cat-in-the-Hat"-style hat covered with Jewish Stars and the Israeli flag, and he plays the guitar for a group of moms and their children during the monthly meeting of Kids & Kibbitzing.

"Joe's amazing," states Ingrid Tolson, a newcomer on the committee that puts together the monthly event, and a frequent attendee who brings her two 10-month-old twins. "My boys just sit and watch him, mesmerized."

Kids & Kibbitzing, sponsored by the JCF's Women's Alliance in conjunction with YAD Couples and chaired by Julie Lyss, started meeting last September. The group, open to moms with children newborn to 5 years old, meets from 3 to 4:30 p.m. one day a month. The event typically includes shmoozing time, 20 minutes of singing, and a main program. Meeting locations vary, and are usually at a synagogue or at a beneficiary of the JCF, such as the Jewish Home in San Francisco.

And the group is not just open to moms.

"Dads can come too. One meeting we even had six dads attend," says Beth Gross, Women's Alliance assistant.

The group has also talked about having a picnic that includes the dads.

Besides having fun with other Jewish parents and their children, Kids & Kibbitzing provides a format for exploring resources within the Jewish community.

"At the Jewish Home, we sang with the residents. We wanted to give the moms an opportunity to do a mitzvah, as well as have fun," says Gross. "We also focus on education."

According to Gross, previous meetings have included librarian Jonathan Schwartz from the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco, who shared how to tell a good bedtime story and incorporate Jewish stories. At another meeting, Vicky Kelman, director of the Bureau of Jewish Education's Jewish Family Education Project, talked to the group about creating Jewish bedtime rituals.

And there's always the Musical Mitzvah Man.

"It's simply a lot of fun," states Levin, the Mitzvah Man. "I get to incorporate Jewish education and my love for music."

Levin leads the group in such songs as "Itsy Bitsy Ackavish" and "Twinkle, Twinkle, Kochavim," whose lyrics include, "When I sing Shema at night, everything will be all right."

According to Levin, Kids & Kibbitzing is really for the parents.

"We have programs that key into Jewish holidays, for example. For Passover, we covered how to have a kid-friendly seder," he says.

The April program highlighted Diana Naparst, aka Diana Shmiana, and her production of "Yay for Yisrael!!" Naparst typically dons bright-colored overalls, big shoes and a jester hat for her routines, during which she shares such characters as Rockin' Rivka, Chef Shalom and Grouchy Golda, the cleaning lady.

"What I do is a variety show, with clowning and puppets," says Naparst.

Naparst used to be a freelance medical social worker. She quit a year ago to devote herself more fully to performing.

"I had a dream of the ideal career," says Naparst. "I saw myself in front of a group of children, wearing silly costumes, making a fool of myself, and teaching them something special about being human."

She says that what she provides is "edutainment," though she doesn't believe she's the first person to coin the term.

What did she want to communicate about Israel?

"That it's a home for Jewish people and a place we are connected to as Jews. And that Israel is a place in turmoil and that there's a struggle for peace going on over there," replies Naparst.

Future programs are scheduled on Thursday at Congregation Sherith Israel with Mimi Greisman, early childhood educator at the synagogue, and Rabbi Steve Kahn. On Wednesday, June 6, the group will host Rabbi Sydney Mintz from Congregation Emanu-El, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

The monthly meetings, which regularly attract 25 to 30 moms, have become an important part of Tolson's routine.

"Kids & Kibbitzing gives me a way to connect with not only other moms, but other Jewish moms," says Tolson. "I've made some more Jewish friends by attending."

This is the kind of response that Levin likes to hear.

"We work in conjunction with the Young Adults Division because once you get married and have kids, you're growing out of the young adult category and into the general community. We want to make sure to have something for them, to be a welcoming force," he says.

Tolson certainly feels welcome.

"Friday night used to be the night you went out as couples," she says, "But all of a sudden you have a kid, and you're Jewish. So it's nice to have some help making the transition."