Shabbat. Why?

Idie Benjamin and Dale Sides Cooperman

It is a given that on Fridays in Jewish early childhood programs, the school “does” Shabbat. We wonder why? Why do we “do” Shabbat?

All other areas of our early childhood curricula are is open to total scrutiny. Is each particular theme/unit appropriate for these children? Is it meaningful? Will there be opportunities for in depth, appropriate exploration, learning and understanding? Can they engage with it? What will the child learn from this focus? What will the child learn about him/herself from it? What will the children bring to this learning? Whose idea is this theme? Are the learning opportunities teacher-directed or children-initiated?

And when the answers are that this theme/unit is worthwhile pursuing, no matter how many times we may have focused on that theme, as early childhood educators we recognize that we should start anew with goal setting, planning, implementing and assessment. There is the profound understanding that in an early childhood program, there is always something new that happens.

But here we are with “doing” Shabbat every week, the same way, week after week, and year after year. The first Friday of the school year arrives. The candles, grape juice, and hallah are there. The songs are there. The blessings are there. We are there. The children are there. But where, really, are the children? And their families? And us?

If we think about it, we know why we have Shabbat celebrations each week. It is a Jewish school, and therefore should be a part of the curriculum. Shabbat begins Friday night and this may be the only Shabbat the children have. The children enjoy it, as do the parents. It helps to strengthen the connections we have to our families, our children and to our own Judaism.

However, do we ever stop to ask ourselves how we are “doing” Shabbat each week? Do we ever stop to consider how to make it more meaningful and developmentally appropriate? Everything else we do, we examine carefully, but Shabbat we too often “do” by rote.

If we respond to the questions we posed earlier, we will see what we do on Fridays in a new and thoughtful way. Are we creating opportunities for in depth, appropriate exploration, learning and understanding? What will the child learn? What will the child learn about him/herself from it? What will the children bring to this learning? In what ways are we connecting with our families?

Some questions to consider:

Do the children know why we celebrate Shabbat? Do they know that God rested on Shabbat after creating the world? Have you invited God to your Shabbat celebration? Do we talk about how Jews all over the world are going to celebrate Shabbat? Although it’s just fun to eat hallah, do the children know why we eat braided bread on Shabbat?

Do they know that Friday is not Shabbat, but that Shabbat (and all other Jewish holidays) begin when the sun sets (and continue on Saturday)? What we are doing in school is getting ready or practicing for Shabbat. Kabbalat Shabbat – We are welcoming Shabbat. In connecting with families, this is an important piece of information to share. Having Shabbat at school is not a substitute for celebrating it at home. More about that later.

We know that Shabbat is a different day? But how different is Friday? Yes, there is a different snack and the addition of our Shabbat program. However, if we are teaching that Shabbat is a day of rest, are we modeling that?

It has been a busy week with so much going on in our classrooms. Is there a way that we can model how we slow our pace, so together we can bring the week to a gentle close?

Welcoming children with “Shabbat Shalom” instead of “Boker Tov” begins the morning differently. There could be special, quieter materials that only are available on Friday. All week long, we paint, glue, etc. to make things for holidays and other curriculum areas. Friday could be a day for only process-not-product art activities – playing in shaving cream, a water table full of cotton balls and feathers, soft blocks, and other sensory materials. Baking hallah will fill the classroom with delicious smells and provide yet another special sensory experience. Do the teachers and children dress differently to mark the day?

Do we give children an opportunity to reflect on the week? What are their memories of what has happened in the classroom? As we pass the tzedakah box, children can tell a mitzvah they did that week.

The Shabbat celebration or observance is the highlight of the day, as well it should be. Some schools celebrate all together and in some each classroom has its own traditions. In some schools, the rabbi and/or cantor are involved. Parents may be invited, other guests as well.

But no matter what you do, when was the last time you asked yourself why you are doing what you do? What is the enduring understanding of this “activity?”

What is the tone you want to set? How do you begin so as to set that tone? Dale invites the children into the room one-by-one. To each child, she bends down and quietly asks, “Are you ready for Shabbat?” They enter with a sense of the wonder that is about to happen.

What songs are you singing? There are so many children’s Shabbat songs that they grow to love and happily anticipate as a part of their Shabbat celebration. But some parts of the Shabbat liturgy can add spiritual moments to your Kabbalat Shabbat celebration. The magic of Shabbat should not be lost.

If on Shabbat, we read the Torah, how do we connect to that on Friday? Friday is the perfect day to read a Torah story.

Traditionally, Jews don’t “do” Shabbat; they “make” Shabbat. What are the children doing to make Shabbat happen? What do they want to know? What do they want to do? How do they want to bring God into their school Shabbat? What are they bringing to Fridays in their classroom?

Additionally, how are we connecting to our families? Some may celebrate Shabbat at home, each in their on way. How do we encourage them to link what they do at home with what their child does at school? Others may know little about it or believe it will not fit into their lives. How do we partner with them to help them see the value of Shabbat?

Shabbat is central to a Jewish early childhood setting. Take the time to look at the Shabbat that you designed five, ten, fifteen, and more years ago. Have you asked yourself why you are doing what you do? Is it relevant with what we now know about early childhood education? Is what you are doing meaningful and the best it can be?

Your school can create meaningful traditions and a wonderful Kabbalat Shabbat. It only takes some planning.

Shabbat Shalom.

Idie and Dale have written a series of holiday and values lessons for the ECC classroom. Go to Drops of Honey Shabbat to preview the Shabbat lesson.