One strong memory of new motherhood was heading down Broadway for a stroller nap or snapping one of the girls into a Snuggli carrier, and dropping in on a group in the chapel of Ansche Chesed. New moms and a couple of brave dads donned decent socks, took off our shoes and sat around the edge of a big mat. We plopped our babies down in front of us; rolled them around or fed them, and asked the questions new parents ask.
The group was a highlight of my week. No question was too silly, fears and frustrations were laid bare; topics such as feeding and sleeping, relationships and siblings, were gently answered or strongly opined. We snickered over the ridiculousness of advice such as “sleep when your baby sleeps,” and shared eye rolls when purists among us would compare notes on homemade food they had ground while their babies slept.
Whether food was homemade or store-bought, what mattered most was that for an hour and a half, on Wednesday mornings, we came together at the neighborhood shul. That block of time was special, protected from meetings or conference calls, and all the inertia that makes it so daunting for new parents to leave the house. The relationships that grew out of that gathering were special too. Some stood the test of time; others were thinner, but still the stuff of community, leading to knowing and friendly nods of recognition on the street or the gym — and yes, many of us return to synagogue, for family programs, Hebrew school, holidays and book talks, to mark a loss, to celebrate.
Underneath it all was the simple idea of our neighborhood synagogue opening its doors and offering a mat to new parents, and from that the lasting associations all of us new parents will make. Mark Rosen’s 2009 study, “Inspiring Jewish Connections: Outreach to Jewish Parents with Children, 0-3,” affirms the importance of early Jewish connections at the pivotal entry point of new parenthood. Reaching new parents at this important point of life is likely to increase the chances of their making Jewish choices as their families grow and change. At the very beginning stages of creating a family we are all dreamers — dreamers who work hard, juggling careers, expenses, child-care, health care and plans for a family life that is aspirational.
New parents are hungry for information and connection — they want to share the minutia of this life stage that is utterly compelling, full of potential, and sometimes oddly isolating. Online sites and communities have become important venues for sharing and commiserating over parenting experiences, new concepts of self as parent, and the ironies and the humor — way more than mere tips or advice. Parenting.com is the Twitter home to 239,000 followers of Parenting and Babytalk magazines. With over 150,000 hits in May, Kveller.com, with seed funding from UJA-Federation of New York, has hit a home run as an online resource and community where Jewish content and parenting meet. How critical it is to reach new parents when they are just setting out to build their family lives, and engage them in appealing and helpful Jewish experiences.
A number of Jewish organizations are working in this area. UJA-Federation’s Beginning Jewish Families task force is deepening the work. Since 2009, the BJF task force has been inviting congregations and organizations to think differently about how they reach new families in downtown Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn. Cooking and nutrition; music and puppets; salons, psychologists and doulas; they are all part of the mix. UJA-Federation is also beginning to fund a new round of programs, as five diverse centers of Jewish life have been awarded grants in Downtown Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn.
As I took the No. 2 train to Brooklyn for a recent site visit to a program, I emerged in Prospect Park South and Windsor Terrace — the land of slings and strollers, where a baby boom is now in full swing. Indeed the just released 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York will have rich demographic information to unpack in the months ahead. In writing about families, the study notes that “having close friends who are Jewish, strongly links with one’s Jewish choices and level of Jewish involvement.” And new parenthood is an ideal moment for sure, for making new and powerful friendships. We and others in the community look forward to exploring all that the data and study tell us.
In the meantime, the new storefront Kings Bay JCC in Windsor Terrace proved the case yet again: babies and toddlers streamed in to a no-frills room, to hear Gilad and Tehilah weave stories and sing songs, to dance and jump on a mat, in a Jewish place. Will these parents’ choices continue to be Jewish as their families grow? We’ll want to know, and learn all we can. For Jewish places and spaces, offering a gathering point, and a spark … along with the simple power of the mat, is a potent mix.
Melanie Schneider is a senior planning executive with CoJIR, the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal of UJA-Federation of NY. She staffs the Beginning Jewish Families and Jewish Community Development task forces.