Tot Shabbat event brings Jewish generations together in West Lebanon

By BENJAMIN ROSENBERG

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 12-04-2022 12:06 AM

WEST LEBANON — Roughly 20 Upper Valley toddlers and young Jewish children, along with 35 or so of their parents and grandparents, gathered at the Kilton Public Library on Saturday for a morning of songs, crafts and stories.

The tot Shabbat event — referring to the Jewish Sabbath, which takes place from Friday at sundown until Saturday at sundown — was sponsored by the area’s two synagogues: Kol Ha’Emek in Hanover and Shir Shalom in Woodstock. But Leah Gawel, director of family education at Shir Shalom, stressed the importance of holding family programs in spaces outside the synagogues.

“Because we live in an area that people perceive as having so few Jews, if we just silo ourselves within our synagogues ... there are a lot of people who thought the few people they knew were the entirety of the Jewish community,” Gawel said. “We wanted them to realize that there’s really this diverse, vibrant Jewish community, and for the families to know that we are bigger than just X synagogue or Y synagogue.”

Jewish Communities of Vermont received a grant of $150,000 from the Covenant Foundation, to be spread out over three years and used for all kinds of educational programs. The Upper Valley synagogues put on an apple-picking event at Poverty Lane Orchards in September for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and Saturday was their second joint program aimed at young children.

The kids began the day with light snacks and drinks, toys and small art projects, followed by a song session led by Kol Ha’Emek director of education Melissa Herman. Herman closed with “I Have a Little Dreidel” in honor of Hanukkah, which begins in the evening of Dec. 18. One of the kids drew a laugh from the audience by responding “Christmas” when Herman asked which holiday is next on the calendar.

“I had no idea what (turnout) to expect,” Herman said. “It’s a rainy day and we don’t do RSVPs. I was delighted, but I wouldn’t say I was surprised because I didn’t have any expectations.”

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The grandparents then read Jewish stories aimed at young audiences to the kids. The books were provided by the PJ Library, which sends free Jewish children’s books to families all over the world.

Dinah Birch, program coordinator for the PJ Library with the Jewish Federation of New Hampshire, said the impressive turnout emphasized the need for Jewish communities to congregate in public spaces, not just synagogues.

“Oftentimes people feel more comfortable at a library, or a park,” Birch said. “Including the grandparents also brings in another generation and makes it feel like a family thing. It’s very important for kids to see that they’re not the only Jews in the area.”

The Upper Valley has a small Jewish population compared with larger, more urban areas, so events like Saturday’s can help connect that community across generations, Herman said.

The kids who gathered at the library may not know what antisemitism is or be aware that antisemitic incidents reported in the United States hit a record high in 2021, but Gawel said it is important for children to be proud of their Jewish identities from a young age.

“In the face of anti-Semitism, the most important thing for us to do is to hang our Jewish flags out and continue living and being Jewish,” Gawel said. “The best way to combat antisemitism is to be and raise strong Jewish people who feel comfortable in their faith.”

Benjamin Rosenberg can be reached at brosenberg@vnews.com or 603-727-3302.

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