It’s a cold and rainy Sunday morning in March, and Carroll Gardens’ puddle-riddled, wet playgrounds are empty.
But there’s a playground vibe inside Hannah Senesh Community Day School, where more than 30 toddlers are enjoying the nondenominational Jewish school’s gym. While the music of Laurie Berkner, Elizabeth Mitchell and other contemporary children’s crooners plays from a boom box, tots climb on soft blocks and mats, crawl through mesh tunnels and tents, and push doll strollers, toy shopping carts and a miniature red vacuum cleaner around the space.
Meanwhile bleary-eyed moms and dads, still adjusting to the early wake-up calls of their offspring, sip coffee, nibble on bagels, chat with each other and mediate the occasional toy dispute.
A typical scene at Sundays@Senesh, one of six new UJA-Federation of New York-funded projects reaching out to the Jewish babies, toddlers and their mostly unaffiliated parents of Brownstone Brooklyn.
Recipients of “ignition grants” awarded this winter by UJA-Federation of New York’s Beginning Jewish Families Task Force (an arm of the federation’s Commission for Jewish Identity and Renewal) and totaling $142,000 over 18 months, these six projects (their grants range from $17,000 to $30,000) are part of the task force’s larger effort to reach out to and engage new parents. The task force this fall launched Kveller, an Internet portal that offers a “Jewish twist on parenting,” and the long-range plan is to go beyond Brownstone Brooklyn and its surrounding neighborhoods, stepping up programming in other local communities with large numbers of unaffiliated Jewish parents, such as northern Westchester County and Manhattan’s Battery Park City.
“These initiatives help parents learn successful parenting strategies while making friends and developing a Jewish value system,” said Shereen Rutman, chair of the task force, in an e-mail statement about the grants. “As parents find their own personal connection to the Jewish world, their relationship to others and to Judaism becomes an integral part to their family life.”
Launched in January, Sundays@Senesh, which has attracted more than 80 families so far, has been steadily growing.
Nicole Nash, head of Hannah Senesh, said the 160-student, k-8 school “really wanted to open our doors to the wider community and become a space for more members of the Jewish Brownstone Brooklyn community to build strong connections.
“We’re starting with this effort for ages 0-2 programming and hopefully we will organically begin to add programs for a larger demographic,” Nash says.
Located on Smith Street, in the heart of Carroll Gardens, Senesh’s state-of-the-art building — in use less than four years — had been standing empty on weekends, while at the same time neighborhood parents had been complaining about a dearth of indoor play spaces.
“This is perfect for us because he’s been up since 7 a.m.,” says Annette Powers, of Park Slope, on a recent Sunday morning in the Senesh gym as she watches her almost 2-year-old son Noah play with large, soft blocks and then make his way for the toy kitchen. “It’s nice to have things like this, places to go. I think they’re very smart to offer this. It’s smart marketing: get ‘em in early and get them familiar with your program.”
Another mom, Robin Goldman, is here for her fifth time with her two sons and calls the sessions “a lifesaver in winter.”
The Sunday drop-in sessions, publicized primarily through posts on neighborhood parenting listservs, have no Jewish content and are open to anyone, Jewish or not, willing to pay the $10-per-child (or $15-per-family) admission fee, which includes coffee and bagels.
However, Nash says that a “high percentage of people who come here are Jewish.”
“I’m here most Sundays, and many people I talk to are excited, want to know more about the school and ask about other Jewish programs,” she says. (The sign-in desk this past Sunday featured flyers promoting an upcoming Purim event.)
While the cuisine at Sundays@Senesh is limited to bagels, another ignition-grant program, run by the Jewish environmental group Hazon, revolves around food.
The Jewish Food and Family Project, which has not yet launched, will consist of four sessions in which cohorts of expectant parents discuss Jewish/ethical/sustainable food issues and, with help from a chef, collectively prepare Shabbat meals. Participants will eat their creations together, but will also freeze portions so that they can have several healthy meals at the ready once the baby arrives.
“We know most people take childbirth classes, and this is almost a complement to that,” explains Renanit Levy, Hazon’s director of institutional advancement. “This is building on people’s natural interest when they are pregnant about moving into a new role, being part of a new community.”
“We’re anticipating that many participants may not have had a Shabbat meal before, and we’ll be exploring how does Jewish ritual relate to the choices we make for our families, what kind of meat do we eat, what do we think about kashrut,” she says, adding that the “overall goal” of the program is that participants will “make lifelong friends, stay in touch after the children are born” and continue getting together for home-cooked Shabbat dinners.
While Sundays@Senesh and the Hazon project are designed for general audiences, other “ignition” programs target demographics that have not always felt comfortable in mainstream New York Jewish settings.
At Kane Street Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in Cobble Hill, the federation grant offers an opportunity to “make sure that the word is out that the Conservative movement, particularly our synagogue, embraces gay and lesbian families,” says Rabbi Valerie Lieber, who is coordinating the new havurah and support/social group for LGBT parents, slated to launch just before Passover.
Rabbi Lieber, who is Kane Street’s director of education and is herself in a same-sex marriage, says there are already several LGBT families in the congregation — one of the teen assistants in the Hebrew school has two moms. However, “I don’t think we’re known as a magnet congregation for gay and lesbian families yet.”
Other projects for specific populations are a Prospect Heights adoptive parent support group run by the Jewish Child Care Association and two Park Slope music classes — KesheTOT (keshet means rainbow in Hebrew) and Tot Tussovka (Russian for “public gathering”) — which appeal to Hebrew-speaking and Russian-speaking parents.
At this Sunday’s Tot Tussovka, teacher Natalia Tsvirko, a Russian-born, Israeli-raised Brooklyn College opera student who exudes warmth, coaxes smiles and even some attempts at singing from the six babies (ranging from 3 months to 14 months) perched on the laps of moms and dads.
The Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst runs the class, which incorporates Russian, Hebrew and English, but it is held in central Park Slope, just down the street from the Park Slope Food Co-op and maternity boutique Boing Boing. And while several participants trek in from south Brooklyn, an area long known as a hub for Russian Jewish immigrants, Tot Tussovka, which has attracted over 20 families (not all at once) so far, is designed for the growing numbers of second-generation families settling in Brownstone Brooklyn — many of them interfaith couples in which only one parent is Russian-speaking.
In the six weeks since Tot Tussovka’s launch, “we have learned a lot about the Russian-speaking families that choose to live in Brownstone Brooklyn and what makes them different from ones in South Brooklyn,” says Melanie Levav, the JCH of Bensonhurst’s assistant executive director.
“Many are interfaith, and our approach through culture is one that’s attractive. People are not so much interested in the religious aspects [of Judaism], but they’re definitely into music, literature and art.”
At last Sunday’s session, held in a basement yoga studio, activities include a Russian song about animals, a Hebrew song about body parts, shaking instruments about to “Chunga Chunga,” a Russian folk song, and a reading of Eric Carle’s “Polar Bear, Polar Bear What Do You Hear?” translated into Russian.
Zhanna Beyl, who emigrated from Moscow at age 14, travels to Tot Tussovka each week from Midwood with her American-born husband and their 3-month-old son, Shmulik, who she hopes to raise bilingually.
“It’s fun,” she says of the class. “I’m not sure how much Shmulik is getting out of it, but I love it. It puts me on a schedule and gets us out of the house.”