Most synagogues offer some sort of kid-friendly service once a month or so. It’s called “Tot Shabbat” and it’s aimed at kids that are too little for religious school but too old to doze in their parents arms during services.
I’ve been attending the toddler service for more than a decade now.
That one sentence sums up exactly where I am right now. I’ve been doing this for more than a decade, and I can see the end of it coming and it’s bittersweet. My youngest will be entering kindergarten in September of this year, and will start going to religious school along with her older siblings on Saturdays.
I started going to Tot Shabbat with a toddler who didn’t know any more about Judaism than I did. We learned together, she and I. We started singing along with the songs and looking forward to playtime afterwards. We met the other families and made friends. I went with a terrified little guy who hated every little bit of attending anything where there were strangers. I sat outside in the hall, when he was too upset to go inside, and listened to the other kids singing along. I went with a nursing baby girl, and a still irritated preschooler. And when said preschooler moved onto big-kid school, I then went with my little one. She danced under the prayer shawl we’d hold up to represent a tent, and run around after her friends once services were over.
My youngest loves going to the synagogue, it’s literally the high point of the week for her. I think part of it is that she loves the dresses and the shiny shoes she wears on Shabbat, but a lot of it also is the kids. She loves having her big brother there, and feeling like she’s big just like him. She loves watching her big sister attend the grown-up service, and she loves the Torah parade that all the kids participate in towards the end of the service.
The synagogue is not always a comfortable place for me. I didn’t grow up Jewish, and didn’t convert until after my second child was born. But it’s where I grew up as a mom, in a lot of ways. I met other moms with kids that were the same age as my own. Each kid has his or her own social group, and the accompanying group of parents that I fit in with. I commiserate with the other sixth grade parents about planning bat mitzvahs and finding time for religious school with all the other obligations our kids have. I check with the other moms of second graders, because their sons are running around with mine. I trade childcare with the other parents of the toddlers and preschoolers, one of us keeping an eye on them, reading stories and dispensing juice and challah after services.
While my kids are all facing some pretty significant milestones in the next year or so, as Jewish kids, I’m starting to recognize that I’m going to be graduating to a new place as a Jewish parent. Next year, I won’t be attending Tot Shabbat.
I’m wistful about it. I’m sad about it. And I even think I’m a little excited about it too, because now’s the time to grow up, in a way. I’m ready to graduate to the grown-up service. I’m ready to go to services and not have a little one playing at my feet, to not have a baby that needs to nurse, or a toddler that needs to go out in the lobby and run. To sit with all the other grown-ups.
I’ve been going to Tot Shabbat for more than a decade, and I don’t know if I’m ready to stop. Tot Shabbat is easy. Tot Shabbat is fun and loud and relaxed. Tot Shabbat is so much more about the kids than about the grown ups, and I’m wondering now if that was part of the attraction.
At least I’ve got another nine months or so to get used to the idea of being a Jewish grown-up, instead of just a Jewish parent.