by Julie Wolf, JFN Program Specialist

Why is Thursday morning different from all other mornings — at least at JFS? For many families, Thursday mornings are spent in the JFS Children’s Room at Playtime Meet-up, run by Jewish Family Network connector Nissa Weiss. There are toys, there are crayons, there are snack crackers — but exactly who is this playgroup for? Without question, the adults enjoy it just as much as the kids. Whether families have been coming for a few weeks or a few months, they all speak of the warmth and friendship they feel in that room. In this interview, I spoke to a few of these people, parents and grandparents from disparate backgrounds and at different stages in their lives. The group interviewed here were last winter’s Tuesday-morning regulars. This fall, Playtime Meet-ups moved to Thursdays, from 9:30 to 11:30, where it continues to be a favorite program of Jewish Family Network.

Arinne Braverman and her wife, Carrie, live in Needham with their two sons, Noah and Jacob (“Coby”). After being at home on maternity leave following Coby’s birth, Arinne returned to work full-time for Hillel, where she is a program director. While at home, though, she and her sons were regulars at their newfound playgroup.

JFN: Arinne, what is it about the JFN playgroup that makes you pack up the two boys each week and schlep out to Framingham?

ARINNE: I decided to give the group a try after e-mailing the coordinator, Nissa Weiss, while still recovering from the birth of our second child. I’d had a c-section and was eager to get out of the house and meet other mommies, but couldn’t yet handle the physical tasks involved in driving the boys there solo. Nissa hadn’t even met me yet, but generously volunteered to help out in any way she could — and she’s a mom of three herself! I was very touched by her offer of support for a newcomer — the group felt haimish [Yiddish for “homey” or “friendly”] before I’d ever even attended!

I did a structured Mommy-and-Me-type class with our first son. If I had known about the JFN group at that time, I would have attended with him as well. The things that set JFN’s group apart in my mind are 1) it’s Jewishly affiliated; 2) it’s facilitated by Nissa (yay!); 3) it’s free; and 4) it’s so easy to participate! It’s a drop-in group, which makes participating stress-free. Unlike the class I’m taking with my second child now, if you’re “late” or if it’s inconvenient to attend one week, it’s not an issue.

I was delighted to see that the group was Jewishly affiliated. Before our children were born, we attended shul weekly. Since the boys can’t help being disruptive during services at this age, we only make it to temple a few times a year for now. We “do Jewish” at home on our own, but try to take advantage of every opportunity to provide them with a Jewish community experience as well. Noah, my 22-month-old, LOVES to be read to, and I was thrilled when I saw all of the new Jewish books in the play space. He enjoys reading a new book from the JFN space during each visit.

It’s also really helpful to have a contained space to play in when you have “two under two in tow.” If you have to attend to the needs of the infant, your toddler can’t wander off too far! And having a space that both gives free snacks and allows snacks to be brought in from outside (food allergies) and has free parking and a bathroom with a diaper changing station is all an added bonus!

Steve and Phyllis Smoller live in Framingham. Like many grandparents, they have stepped in to help their grandchildren’s working parents with child care. Their granddaughter Addison was under 2 and an only child when Steve and Phyllis first learned of the playgroup. After about a year of being regulars on our circuit, Steve and Phyllis became grandparents again, to Addison’s little sister, Hadley.

JFN: Steve, you and Phyllis were two of our very first grandparents to come to playgroup regularly. What was it about playgroup from the start that made it become a regular destination for you?

STEVE: We liked the informal format of the program. It allowed for Addison to interact with other kids when she wanted to and play by herself when she wanted to.

JFN: Have you tried other activities with Addison?

STEVE: We did try another program for little ones, but found it was too structured for Addison. She rapidly lost interest in a lot of things that they tried to do with the kids. She really prefers to do her own thing and go at her own pace.

JFN: As an activity that you and Addison participate in together, is it especially meaningful for you, especially since Phyllis started to stay home with the baby?

STEVE: It is a time that I get to spend with Addison, just the two of us, but, because the program is so informal and not a structured one, she gets to choose when she wants to be with me and when she wants to be with the kids or alone. I enjoy watching her do her thing, and I also enjoy watching the other kids of various ages doing their thing.

Susan Glueck and her husband, Rich, live in Ashland with their sons, Nathan and Parker. Susan is an involved, active parent and has participated in many activities, both formal and unstructured. Nathan was in kindergarten and Parker wasn’t quite 2 when we talked.

JFN: Susan, you’ve got a busy schedule now, with Nathan in kindergarten and Parker still a baby. What is about playgroup that makes you come back every week, and what does it mean to you — and Parker, too — to see some of the same faces each week?

SUSAN: The second child often gets shortchanged in the friends department since the first child has had longer to establish relationships with other kids (as has the mom with those kids’ moms). I want to make sure Parker gets to make his own set of friends. Plus, it is hard to find other parents whose kids are spaced four-plus years apart like mine, which would make a “two-fer” play date easier. We go back every week because a) nothing beats a free playgroup; b) Parker remembers the names of most of the regular attendees; and c) it is a chance for me to socialize with other adults and get out of the house while Nathan is away at kindergarten. We had a regular playgroup for Nathan for almost four years through our local MOMS club which disbanded when most of the parents had additional kids, and I really miss it. This is helping fill the gap.

A medical social worker for 40 years, Marsha Farmelant retired in April 2010 to take care of her grandson, Orion. Adjusting to her new role was difficult at first, but she credits playgroup with easing the transition.

JFN: Marsha, how did you find out about this playgroup in the first place? And is there something particular about the JFN playgroup that makes you keep coming back and that is perhaps more comfortable for grandparents than other groups? 

MARSHA: Last May, I went into JFS to bring a donation on my mother’s behalf. I saw Malka [Young, Director of Community Impacts for JFS and a personal and professional friend] there, and we began to chat. I told her about taking care of Orion, and actually how lonely I had been the whole winter previous, because of the social isolation (newly retired — quite an adjustment), the bad weather, etc., home most of the time without social connections in my new job as grandma. I had actually lost 15 pounds because I lost my appetite completely — to the point that my PCP was quite concerned about my health. Malka was quick to tell me about the playgroup that meets weekly, and she took my e-mail address. Soon I was getting newsletters, etc., and began to have something to look forward to.

My schedule with Orion’s mother’s summer hours did not lend itself to joining the playgroup. The first opportunity that came along in September, Orion and I were there! And we were so warmly greeted by Nissa and the other “mothers” — a new and special connection for the two of us. We have a wonderful activity to do every week.

Being the social worker that I have been, I have gotten to know the “core” group of mothers and children well, and even invited along another grandmother that I met at the Ashland Kidspot, to bring her little granddaughter as well, knowing that she, too, would be welcomed warmly…. We discuss issues related to the children and their well-being. Orion has had a lot of feeding issues, and I have benefited greatly from suggestions from the others about what to try to feed him, etc., and also from their concern and follow-up questions. And there are discussions about Judaica, holidays, rituals, recipes, etc.

It is a place I feel very welcome, even though I am so much older than the others. Nissa is warm, welcoming, energetic, upbeat. It’s really a pleasure to go every week. And of course, Orion loves it there. He gets to play and play and play, in a clean and safe environment, with many children of various ages — a perfect opportunity for him.

And what about this Nissa person we keep hearing about? Nissa Weiss participated in the playgroup herself before she began to work for JFN and run the show. For Nissa, it’s definitely not just a job. Being part of this group is as meaningful to her as it is to the people she welcomes so warmly each week.

JFN: Nissa, how did you start coming to playgroup, and what did you notice about it that was different? What do you hope people take away from it? What do you take away from it?

NISSA: I came to work with JFN after attending the group with my youngest, Kyla, for a year. The first time I attended it was after getting, like, a gazillion e-mails from you, who I met at a Mitzvah Day picnic. I always wanted to come and see the other moms and connect with other Jewish families, which you don’t really get to meet otherwise.

Once I came, I realized the importance of being surrounded by other “Yiddishe mamas.” We can complain as much as we like — and it’s all good…

Since running the group myself, I can say I also see the importance of the young friendships that Kyla has. She really wants to see her friends in the “big playroom,” as she calls the JFN room. I have connected to many moms in the group, but most important, I have connected to the grandparents in the group, which I feel brings a wider sense of community and to the lives of Kyla and me.

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