Programming for Young Families Takes Center Stage at Etz Hayim Congregation

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Etz Hayim’s preschool and youth programs offer the younger members of the congregation an opportunity to enjoy fun and educational Jewish activities and learning. Photo courtesy of Naomi Harris.

Programming for young families is taking center stage at Etz Hayim Congregation in Arlington, driving membership and growth and creating an environment that is well suited for bringing in new generations to the Northern Virginia congregation.

The featured programs include a “Tot Shabbat” where kids and families can attend special services once a month. The congregation brings in a music teacher to sing with the kids and they have child-friendly crafts, along with programmatic components for parents, and it fosters an environment that’s perfect for raising a Jewish family.

“Whenever I see that email saying that there’s kids’ programming [coming up], I immediately put it on our calendar because it’s just always really engaging with our daughter,” said Danielle Tannenbaum, an Etz Hayim member and a parent of two
young children.

Tannenbaum said that she describes the Tot Shabbat as “baby music class” to her friends who are interested in some of the programming themselves, and she’s a big fan of all the work that Miriam Roochvarg, Etz Hayim’s director of Jewish learning and programming, is doing with youth activities.

She’s also excited for a “mom’s night out” where they’ll be doing a wine night together, and she added that another enjoyable aspect of Etz Hayim’s focus on young families is getting to meet and interact with other local parents of young Jewish families.

“It was really amazing, especially for me when I was pregnant with my first child, because then I had built-in mom friends, before I even became a mom,” Tannenbaum said. “I got so much advice from all the moms and the dads, and it was just really fun for everybody.”

And these programs and other events extend beyond the confines of the synagogue, as Tannenbaum said that she’s hosted several of these parenting events at her home, while attending many more at the homes of others.

She said they’ll have Sukkot events with the kids, they had a recent event where the kids watched “The Lorax” together while the parents talked, and there are so many more programs that engender a sense of community with the parents and families.

These programs also help get the young children familiar and comfortable being in Jewish spaces and interacting with the Jewish community.

“Their kid is absolutely welcome in the space with them, which relaxes everybody, and it also teaches the kids that this is a space for them that they can feel comfortable in as they get older. It’s not a mysterious space, they can have ownership, they can feel like this is where they belong in Jewish community, that their Torah is theirs, and they don’t feel alienated from it or afraid of it,” Rav Amelia Wolf, Etz Hayim’s head rabbi, said.

Wolf also spoke about plans that the congregation has for Passover, which will allow for great involvement in the whole community regardless of one’s age.

Wolf said that one program will allow parents to bring their children and have them be entertained with age-appropriate activities while all the adults can interact with each other.

All of this programming has been very helpful in growing the congregation, as Tannenbaum noted that family programming and the desire to raise a Jewish family can serve as a major motivator for young people, even if they aren’t parents yet.

“As families visit and then test out the Shabbat services or whatever programming we’re doing, they’ll mention that when they join in. In fact, I’ve had friends who don’t even have children yet, but they say, ‘Can I come and see what your Tot Shabbat is about?’” Tannenbaum said.

The growing interest in these programs continues to build the community up, according to Tannenbaum. She said that she, her husband and her daughter are making so many new friends as people continue to join the congregation and that it’s a wonderful trend.

She added that more programs are being added to the calendar all the time, something that excites her and her daughter, who pulls on her mother’s leg asking her to go to events and services at the synagogue.

But most importantly, Tannenbaum said that having such a strong Jewish family culture helps hold their family accountable to stay engaged with Jewish practice and spreads the culture outside of the synagogue walls.

“The Jewishness from the programs is just reminding us that we want to also bring it into our home. My favorite memories as a child were Shabbat dinners, and this programming is helping me to continue that tradition with my daughter and my son,” Tannenbaum said.

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