Not your average kids service: Tot Shabbat, Daddy Breakfasts engage young families at Sherith Isra

Congregation Sherith Israel is making Judaism fun. Not just the typical, feel-good fun of community involvement, but old-fashioned cookie-baking, loud-singing, story- and joke-telling, booty-shaking fun.

Does that sound like being a kid again? Well, that’s exactly the demographic the synagogue is serving in its monthly Tot Shabbat services.

Sherith Israel has been offering services for children under the age of 6 and their parents for more than 20 years. The Saturday morning Tot Shabbat service is led by Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller with the help of early childhood educator Meredith Reich.

“Parents are really busy and don’t have time to think about creating Jewish ritual for themselves, but when it comes to their kids, they love the opportunity to get together with other kids and parents around these rituals,” says Nancy Sheftel-Gomes, the synagogue’s educational director.

The Tot Shabbats have been so successful that parents started clamoring for more programming. Sherith Israel now has a Havdallah pajama party every other month, where children come in their pajamas for playtime, storytelling and pizza — and the Havdallah service.

The other programming addition, started six years ago, was the Daddy Breakfast. This is a chance for moms to sleep in, while dads arrive at 9:30 a.m., an hour before the tot services begin, to eat breakfast and participate in a discussion group for fathers. Typically between eight and a dozen families attend the Daddy Breakfasts and Tot Shabbats.

The temple playroom is like a Jewish-themed fun zone for little people. The tiny playhouses have mezuzahs at toddler height, and there is a toy ark with a stuffed, plush Torah inside. Children are kept busy making challah, decorating kippahs and making songbooks while their dads drink coffee and bond over child-rearing issues. The temple’s assistant rabbi leads the discussion, which is largely steered by the dads.

And recently, a group of mothers started its own tradition of a Mommy Breakfast at nearby Fillmore Street cafés, to have bonding time while their husbands take care of the kids.

While the Tot Shabbat service is geared to the micro attention span of small children, the short songs, prayers, stories and activities also appeal to parents.

“If you are not comfortable with formal religion, this is a lighter version,” Sheftel-Gomes says. “The songs are lively and fun and the services are not that serious. Upstairs in the main sanctuary, you have to sit still and not disturb anyone. At Tot Shabbat, we encourage everyone to dance. On Yom Kippur, some parents prefer to come to the Tot Yom Tov instead of services in the main temple.”

Michael Zwibelman has been coming to Tot Shabbat and Daddy Breakfasts with his 2-year-old son, Charlie, for a year. The 35-year-old lawyer and San Francisco resident says that the monthly family event makes him feel plugged into the Jewish community and connected to other families with small children.

Because his hectic work life and busy schedule doesn’t always allow time to make these kinds of connections, he appreciates the convenience of Sherith Israel’s family offerings. He also enjoys exchanging “war stories” about child rearing with other dads.

And for his son, the best part of the experience is hearing Saxe-Taller play guitar.

“After Tot Shabbat, Charlie keeps saying ‘Rabbi Julie, Rabbi Julie’ for days and days,” Zwibelman says.