With small children at the center of a family’s routine, Friday night Shabbat observance can be challenging. Although chaos sometimes reigns, there are plenty of smiles at the Levinson-Waldman home come Shabbat.

Rachel and Ariel Levinson-Waldman have found ways to make Shabbat happen almost every week with their two children, Sarah, who is almost four years old, and Eli, who will soon be one. As Rachel says, “It has paid big dividends to do Shabbat together. Sarah gets excited, asks questions…and it gives her a sense of being Jewish.”

Whether before or after the kids eat, the four of them do the Shabbat blessings with candles, wine and challah. And they sing. Ariel, who sang in a cappella groups in college, says it reminds him of his own upbringing, as his parents, both of whom are musicians, made music and singing a big part of their Friday Shabbat observance.

The ritual may only take ten minutes, but it is a highlight of the family’s week.

Sarah Levinson-Waldman enjoys a PJ Library book with her father, Ariel.

Sarah Levinson-Waldman enjoys a PJ Library book with her father, Ariel.

Rachel enjoys cooking and baking, and once, prior to having kids, jokingly planned a vacation to a cooking school that boasted of its “chocolate camp.” But those days seem like a distant memory right now, as time constraints mean she must focus on putting meals on the table quickly, even on Shabbat.

To the extent that Shabbat means special food, perhaps it’s no surprise that challah takes center stage. The Levinson-Waldmans have a special challah cover, and when Rachel asks boisterous Sarah to retrieve it, Sarah momentarily gets serious, carrying it with all the reverence that an almost-four-year-old can muster.

When asked what his favorite parts of Shabbat are, Ariel responds that he loves “touching the challah or touching someone who is touching the challah” as they bless it, and the blessings over the children. Sarah says her favorite part of Shabbat is lighting the candles with her mother, and her favorite Shabbat food is challah “because I like to give pieces to everyone.”

In the ideal world, they would have homemade challah, but for now they buy their challah from a store near Sarah’s school when one of them picks her up after work on Friday. Rachel looks forward to homemade challah in the not-too-distant future, but in the meantime, the Shabbat rituals still provide a welcome respite, marking the end of each week.

The kids’ Shabbat dinner is often as simple as scrambled eggs and strawberries. For herself and Ariel, Rachel typically prepares an easy meal that cooks while the family does the Shabbat blessings or that is already prepared and refrigerated, such as quinoa with roasted vegetables or lentil salad with feta.

Even as they remember gourmet meals enjoyed recently at restaurants or the homes of others, both Rachel and Ariel recognize that their own happy memories of Shabbat growing up feature foods that can hardly be considered gourmet; in Rachel’s case it was chicken soup from a package with crunchy shkedei marak (“soup almonds”) that she ate while living in Israel during college, while for Ariel it was knishes and canned corn served on Friday nights at Jewish summer camp.

As for many families with young kids, bedtime rituals for the kids include reading and cuddling as the day winds down. The Levinson-Waldmans are members of PJ Library, a Jewish family engagement program that mails members a free monthly selection of age-appropriate Jewish children’s literature and/or music.

While Eli isn’t yet making his feelings known (at least not in a way that is easily translatable for this post), Sarah is emphatically a fan of PJ Library books, including those about Shabbat. And just for emphasis, when asked how she likes them, Sarah grabs one and jumps into her father’s lap, calling a temporary halt to grown-up conversation so that she and her father can reread the book.