Families at a Jewish Baby Network Hanukkah party, December 2022. (Photo/JBN)
Families at a Jewish Baby Network Hanukkah party, December 2022. (Photo/JBN)

Jewish Baby Network is a lifeline for new parents in the Bay Area

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

It takes a village to raise a child, or so the adage goes. But how exactly does one find a village in this modern age?

If you’re a new Jewish parent in the Bay Area looking for connection, sooner or later you’ll get word of the Jewish Baby Network.

For parents with young children (up to 36 months) and even those who are expecting, JBN provides many services — all in the name of helping people get in touch with one another and the larger Jewish community.

JBN runs playgroups and Jewish-themed gatherings, helps people find resources, and creates opportunities for people to develop support systems and friends throughout pregnancy, postpartum, the first years and beyond. There are active groups in Marin County, the East Bay, San Francisco and on the Peninsula.

Jewish Baby Network was a godsend for Deborah Lapidus of Palo Alto. Just three days after the birth of her daughter Alanna in 2022, she felt a desperate need to get out of her house. Her husband was staying at her parents’ home in San Jose, taking care of their 4-year-old son, who was running a fever, to avoid exposing the newborn. That left her alone with the new baby. Luckily for her, there was a JBN event taking place right across the street.

“I was so tired, and I was fed up with being in the house,” Lapidus said. “It was really stressful, and I remember thinking, ‘I need to see people. Help!’”

She had joined the same local JBN group for a Rosh Hashanah event in the park in 2021, just a day after she and her family had moved to the Bay Area from New York. So she packed up three-day-old Alanna and walked over. They were a bit late, but people at the event understood. They all had young children of their own and knew what it was like to parent a newborn.

“I saw my cousin and a bunch of other parents that I’d met before at synagogue, and everybody was surrounding me with love and ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs,’” Lapidus recalled. “And I immediately learned about a baby yoga program at a nearby synagogue.”

Now you’re home with a baby. It’s a really dramatic change and it can be really lonely and isolating.

It was just the kind of thing Jewish Baby Network was created for, said Carol Booth, who has been running the program almost since the start. When Booth began as director in 2014, JBN had 90 families; by 2016, membership had grown to more than 300. Today, more than 1,000 families are active in JBN, with several thousand program alums who have gone on to create their own villages with each other once their children are older.

Celebrating its 10-year anniversary this month, the organization has grown from its modest beginnings, when the activities were limited to holiday-themed playdates in the park, to an expansive network of programs and services including Jewish birth prep classes, newborn playgroups, Shabbat and holiday celebrations, swim parties and music groups. All are free, and older siblings are welcome.

While synagogues fulfill certain needs for community connection, Booth has heard from many parents that the appeal of JBN is its focus specifically on babies from newborn to 3 years old.

“When we started, there was nothing organized in the Jewish community for people with infants,” Booth said. “There were Jewish preschools for preschool-age children. But if you were at home with a 9-month-old, there wasn’t really a program that was for you.

“So many people were desperate for Jewish family programming and a way to build community,” she said. “They needed a program for their next stage in life, with a baby, and they needed friends who were in the same stage.”

In 2020, JBN became a program of Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ Center for Children and Youth. The center offers comprehensive support for an array of needs — breastfeeding, baby care, adoption, surrogacy, circumcision, baby naming, infertility, loss, education and parenting guidance among them — all the way through young adulthood.

However, many parents of very young children gravitate to JBN, which fulfills their need for connection during a time that can be overwhelming and lonely.

“When you’re on maternity or paternity leave, taking care of a newborn, it’s very isolating,” said Rachel Wright, who attended her first JBN event in 2014. “I’m not going to work every day, seeing my colleagues. My family and my childhood friends are all in different parts of the country, not the Bay Area.”

Deborah Lapidus' daughter, Alana, wearing a JBN bib. (Photo/Courtesy)
Deborah Lapidus’ daughter, Alana, wearing a JBN bib. (Photo/Courtesy)

A 2021 survey of 2,496 U.S. adults commissioned by Cigna found that 65% of parents across the board felt lonely, with another survey finding that loneliness appears to play a central role in perinatal and postpartum depression, which affects one in five women during the first three months after birth.

This problem of isolation can be more acute in the Bay Area, where many people have moved from somewhere else, and where there are far fewer families and children. In fact, San Francisco has the lowest percentage of children under 18 (13.7%) among the country’s top 100 most populous cities.

“Most people do not have family close by, since most people have moved here from somewhere else. They don’t have that built-in system,” Booth said. “Everybody here is professional. You’ve got your work and your life and you’ve got your friends, but now you’re home with a baby. It’s a really dramatic change and it can be really lonely and isolating.”

Wright met her best friend Martha through the network, and they formed a group with 15 other JBN parents, friendships that have been a lifeline for the past nine years.

“Not only is it hard to make new friends, it’s hard to keep friends during a really, really important time,” said Wright. “One of my best friends from grad school would start to think about eating dinner at 7 o’clock at night. And now that I have this newborn, I’m not thinking about eating dinner at 7 o’clock at night. I’m thinking about how quickly I can get that kid in bed, so I can go to bed.”

Lapidus says she appreciates that JBN connects parents with peers in the same life stages who express similar religious and cultural values, while also providing information about programs and offerings in the wider Jewish community.

“[JBN] is a pretty innovative model, in that it’s not affiliated with any particular [religious] institution or denomination, so it’s very accessible and inclusive,” Lapidus said. “The events are held at parks, or at different synagogues and JCCs in the area, so it’s both noncommittal and a cool way to explore all the different pockets of the Jewish community here and explore what they look like and what they’re about.”

Booth, a recipient of a 2018 Helen Diller Family Award for Excellence in Jewish Education, said she’s had new parents seeking advice and connection and Jewish organizations looking to start their own programs call her from across the country . “Clearly, there’s a huge need everywhere,” she said.

While JBN hasn’t expanded beyond the Bay Area yet, Booth says she offers help to other organizations looking to start similar networks. As a trailblazer, JBN has also partnered with PJ Library to create a parent connector program, where members can sign up to be matched with other parents in their area. Affinity groups like Olamim, a community for Jewish Latinx families in the Bay Area, are following JBN’s lead and becoming more common.

“We work with so many organizations — synagogues, day schools, JFCS, PJ Library,” said Booth. “I think it’s a great example of the whole Jewish community coming together to support parents and families.”

Lea Loeb
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Lea Loeb

Lea Loeb is engagement reporter at J. She previously served as editorial assistant.