Meirav O’Loughlin, 2, cradles a silver cup of grape juice, being careful not to spill any. She is standing among a group of other children and adults in a back room at the reform synagogue Beit Ahavah in Florence on a recent Friday evening waiting to take a sip.
Her eyes are glued to Rabbi Riqi Kosovske as the rabbi sings a Hebrew prayer. Meirav hums along and when the prayer is done, she, along with all the others, finally takes a drink.
The Kiddush blessing over wine or grape juice is a Jewish ritual done at home or at the synagogue each Friday night just after the sun sets. It is one of the rituals to begin Shabbat, the time carved out each week for Jewish people to rest, spend time with family and celebrate their spirituality. At Beit Ahavah, the first Friday of the month is geared toward the congregation’s youngest children and their parents.
“The main goal is to help support families creating and fostering Jewish identity and expression in their own family and also be part of something bigger than themselves,” Kosovske says.
Called Tot Shabbat, the service is tailored to families with children up to age 6 — though older children attend as well — and moves through all the typical rituals of a Shabbat service like lighting candles and blessing wine — but incorporates play and dance.
“(The kids) learn it right away,” Kosovske says of the Kiddush prayer. They are very enamored with the sound and the cadence of the Hebrew.”Kid-created chaos
This first Friday of February is a bitter cold night but the room is a warm jumble of kid-created chaos. One baby rolls around on the floor in fire engine pajamas, others hop and dance around the room.
Jewish educator Marlene Rachelle provides a constant musical backdrop, playing her guitar, singing Jewish and other folk songs between prayers.
There are about 15 families gathered including grandparents who come with their grandchildren, gay and lesbian parents, and interfaith families.
Meirav is with her mother Rebecca Herkovitz, 32. Her father, Caolán O’Loughlin, 41, typically comes, too, but had to stay home this time with 9-month-old Lev, who has a cold.
Every first Friday of the month Herskovitz leaves her job as an Amherst High School special education teacher and she and O’Loughlin, a stay-at-home dad, pack up the kids and head over to Tot Shabbat.
“It’s a little bit hectic, but it is fun because you know that when you land everyone is happy to see you even if you are a little bit late,” Herskovitz says.Song and dance
Once the prayer is over, Meirav and the other children go to the rabbi who is holding out a braided challah bread.
“Momma, come with,” Meirav says, her blonde pigtails bouncing as she heads to the center of the room.
The fingers of one hand are interlaced with her mother’s fingers, the other hand is resting on the golden brown bread crust as she looks intently at Kosovske who is leading the Hebrew blessing Hamotzi.
With their hands still touching the loaf, the children say the prayer to thank God for bringing forth the bread from the earth.
With an “amen,” the toddlers each grab a chunk of challah, pulling the loaf apart.
“The significance of the braided bread is that we braid our lives together. It is often baked with something sweet like honey to symbolize our souls,” says Kosovske.
As the children munch their bread, some stomp their feet to Rachelle’s music as she circles the room encouraging the children to sing with her. A basket of maracas, bells and tambourines is being passed around and she urges the children to each take an instrument.
Some parents clap their hands, while their kids jiggle maracas and bells in the air.
Meirav nibbles on bread with one hand and holds a tambourine in another, sticking close to her mother.
There is a sort of communal letting off steam at the end of the week, says Herskovitz.
“This is just a place where you can just take a breath.”
When the music stops, and the service ends, there is potluck in the next room featuring pizza and salad.Accepting community
Herskovitz and O’Loughlin, started coming to Tot Shabbat shortly after their daughter was born.
Since O’Loughlin grew up Catholic, they were looking for a Jewish community that would be accepting of an interfaith family. Beit Ahavah’s Tot Shabbat fit the bill.
“It seemed like a good blend of finding a safe community that was really welcoming and also just a really nice activity with music for kids,” Herskovitz says.
A welcoming interfaith group is also what drew Molly Parr, 38.
“It’s been an amazing community,” she says.
Parr and her husband, Rich Parr, 37, live in Florence, only a few minutes from the synagogue.
For them, Tot Shabbat is also another way to help them teach their two daughters, Lilli, 4, and Beatrix, 20 months, about Judaism.
“I appreciate the quality of Tot Shabbat. It’s really great to have something like that in western Massachusetts,” Molly Parr says. “The people are so warm and welcoming.”
Since they began going to Tot Shabbat, Herskovitz’s family started having a regular Shabbat service at their home.
“It’s been wonderful and I have learned so much about Shabbat,” Herskovitz says.
When growing up outside of Boston, her family didn’t celebrate Shabbat, she says. Herskovitz wanted her children to have the opportunity to get to know their Jewish roots and feel what it is like to be part of a Jewish community.
“I think it is an amazing thing that our kids will get to grow up with the other kids and they will have known them from the minute they were born,” she says.
“Our toddler loves it, she talks about it all week and all month. The kids are so happy to go and we are so happy to be there as well, so it is someplace everyone wants to be.”
For more information about Tot Shabbat and other services at Beit Ahavah, visit www.beitahavah.org.
To request to be added to the Tot Shabbat listserv, email email@example.com.
Lisa Spear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.