Building a Community, One Play Date at a Time

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 10, 2007

By now, the ritual is as established as the Friday night lighting of Shabbat candles.

Almost every week for the past four years, five Jewish moms and their children have been meeting at one another's homes in Fairfax County for a morning of play, talk and laughter. At Hanukkah, they exchange gifts. During the joyous holiday of Purim, they bake the traditional hamentaschen (triangular cookies).

"We're always exchanging information about the kids: 'Does your child do this? Mine does that,' " said Fairfax mother Amy Schuler, as her two older children, 4-year-old Morrisa and 2-year-old Solomon, raced around the basement of her friend Amy Halvorsen's home in Fairfax City at the group's get-together last week.

The women met through Shalom Baby, a program of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington that presents gift bags with Jewish-themed items to Jewish families with babies and newcomers to the area.

But in Northern Virginia, Shalom Baby has evolved far beyond a one-time outreach. It is now a thriving community. Shalom Baby families get together regularly at the Jewish Community Center on Little River Turnpike in Fairfax, where they also throw a popular Hanukkah party.

In addition, families have formed their own enclaves, online and in person, with play groups and frequent outings to parks and children's theater performances. Through Shalom Baby's e-mail list, a lively online community has developed.

Marilyn Specht, 36, a Burke mother of two who received a Shalom Baby gift bag three years ago after her son was born, now participates in a play group with other moms she met through Shalom Baby.

"It's nice to meet other people in the Jewish community that are in the same situation as myself, with young children, to talk about parenting issues and synagogue-related things," Specht said. "It's just nice to have that connection."

Shalom Baby is part of an effort by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington to reach out to the area's rapidly growing Jewish community, which has spread far beyond its traditional roots in southern Montgomery County.

In Northern Virginia, a 2004 federation study found that the Jewish population had doubled in the preceding 20 years. By comparison, Jewish communities in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore showed little or no growth over the same period.

Overall, the Jewish community in the Washington area has grown 63 percent since 1984, to 110,000 households, and is now the sixth-largest in the country. It is also one of the youngest; only 10 percent of the population are older then 65.

Shalom Baby, which was started in Northern Virginia in 1995, expanded two years ago to encompass the rest of the Washington area. It has also grown to include ShalomDC, a similar program aimed at welcoming Jewish newcomers.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company