When Robin Poppsinger was growing up in Atlanta’s Jewish community, big holiday celebrations were regular highlights of Jewish life.
Now living in Edmonds, Poppsinger has been looking to re-create those experiences for her family and friends. So when she learned about PJ Library grants for families to create do-it-yourself Jewish experiences, it was just the impetus she needed to put on a kid-friendly Rosh Hashanah celebration at her home.
“It was really lovely,” Poppsinger says. Almost 30 people came over to celebrate, sample from a tasting bar with different apple varieties and honey selections from around the world, dine on salmon and salads, and enjoy the homemade challah — one with raisins and figs and one without. “I made a honey-orange butter to go with the challah with figs,” Poppsinger says. “It was really tasty!”
Through the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, over 50 PJ Library families received $150 Getting Together grants to help make their homegrown Jewish experiences happen. The families were only required to involve at least two other families raising Jewish kids in their experience. The grants supported families creating Jewish experiences in their own neighborhoods, on their own time. This grant program builds on the PJ Library’s formula for creating fun, low-barrier entry points into Jewish life by sending Jewish-themed books to children and hosting the Federation’s Neighborhood Song & Story times held in 11 Puget Sound neighborhood locations.
The grants were a vehicle to “build your own experience and to do it on your terms,” says Jen Fliss, who with two other moms took part in an Eastern European cooking class at a PCC.
In a similar vein, Leah Gotz, who planned a Hanukkah celebration, says the get-togethers are “a great way to build community and have fun.”
The events supported by the grants were as diverse as the families who planned them. Holiday celebrations. Shabbat dinners. Havdalah observances. Informal get-togethers. Family outings. Apple picking.
Because the grants were made available to PJ Library families, making events fun and engaging for children was natural. At Rachel Erickson’s Shabbat dinner with two other families, “extra touches” included a Shabbat activity set for the three children who came to the event. “It held their attention and we were able to find ways to get them involved,” she says.
Poppsinger used apple tree pom-poms to engage the little ones to “do more than just eat,” she says. One of her kids coined the term “challah hats” for kippahs.
For the adults, the events were openings to create community in fresh ways, meeting people where they are. At Erickson’s Shabbat dinner, held after the presidential election, the gathering was a “warm environment” that allowed the grown-ups to share what was on their minds.
Getting together with Jewish friends helps build community because “we understand each other a little bit more,” says Amy Goldstein, who was inspired by the grant to organize a trip to Fox Hollow in Issaquah with her chavurah. “This was an opportunity to do something we normally wouldn’t do.” Five families took part in the outing.
Goldstein’s experience reflects research showing that Jewish social connections are closely connected to participation in Jewish life. In a 2011 Jewish community study in New York, Brandeis University’s Mark Rosen concluded that there is a “close and powerful association of Jewish social connection with level of Jewish engagement.”
Fliss, originally from New York, says in Seattle, “if you want to experience Jewish life, you have to actively seek it out,” especially if one is seeking alternatives to organized Jewish life.
Informal holiday celebrations also create a welcoming space for intermarried couples with one partner who might not be familiar with formal holiday observances. Poppsinger says an informal celebration of Rosh Hashanah “is really more inviting” for intermarried families. “It makes it more accessible, more personal.” At a gathering held in a friend’s home, “you can connect more closely” with the holiday and its meaning,” she observes.
And, says Gotz, intimate holiday get-togethers held in friends’ homes provide time for parents to just visit and for children to play “without the structure of a formal event.”
“I hope this will inspire others to do something Jewish with their friends, to help propagate the idea,” says Erickson.
Would they do it again?
“Absolutely,” says Poppsinger. “In a heartbeat.”