Changing the Paradigm for Early Family Engagement

by Shellie Dickstein and Shariee Calderone

A friend recently told me that her son and daughter-in-law moved to a community near her just before Rosh Hashanah. They have a three year old and a new born baby. My friend and her son decided to take the three year old to a local parent-tot Rosh Hashanah service. Before they left for the service, my friend heard her daughter-in-law explicitly tell her son, “When you go to the service – make us some new friends”.

The service was crowded with families leaving standing room only for parents. Although there were several creative activities in place for the kids, the leaders failed to take the opportunity to greet, welcome, or meet the parents during the event. Nothing was done to help the parents to meet each other or interact family to family. In spite of the parents being reprimanded several times for talking too loudly to each other, my friend struck up a conversation with one of the moms and they quickly uncovered a professional connection between my friend’s son and the woman’s husband. My friend modeled being the parent shadhan – or connector.

How do we get better at creating a culture of radical hachnasat orchim – welcoming guests – and then take even bolder steps to ensure relationship building and parent empowerment become the focus and the outcome?

During a recent convening under the auspices of the JFNA Alliance, representatives from the JCCA, USCJ, URJ, PJ Library, The Jewish Education Project and several other Alliance communities discussed the need for creating a national agenda for early engagement, including a refocus on relationship development. Despite shifts that are occurring in some institutions and communities, it is clear that at many tot-parent experiences, content delivery to children is the main objective, not facilitating connections. Is it truly early family engagement if we do not focus on helping parents develop deep connections with peers?

Ron Wolfson (Relational Judaism) tells us that there are several pieces to the relationship development puzzle including: 1) building trusting relationships with parents so we can serve as mentors, guides and facilitators and, 2) facilitating authentic and organic connections between parents to build friendships and, 3) connecting them to other parents who can serve as Jewish mentors.

At The Jewish Education Project, we are convening a New York Coalition of Family Engagement Innovators to share best practices and spread a new relationship paradigm of early family engagement. These educators represent a cross section of innovating institutions and organizational leaders in the community who are engaging families 0-5. Together with those in the Coalition we are discussing the opportunities and challenges of relationship models, and have been searching for resources that could support us in developing the skills that practitioners need to make this transition. So far we have identified the following other disciplines that we believe can support our practice and shift the paradigm to put relationship development at the core of our work:

  1. Market Research and Design Thinking can teach us principles and techniques to improve our skills of empathetic observation and questioning. This would enable us to get better at uncovering what parents do in their everyday lives that reveal their real values and desires. Through our J-LINC project, with funding from The Covenant Foundation, our staff and the staff of Storahtelling (LabShul), Avodah Arts, Areyvut and Teva/Hazon have participated in training in market research and design thinking in order improve the quality of their engagement with and programming for families with young children.
  2. Hospitality and Food Services industry can teach us how to offer unparalleled hospitality. Danny Meyer, restaurateur, author of Setting the Table, and founder of Hospitality Quotient, (HQ) would say we need to get better at creating rave experiences where guests (not clients) feel they must come back for more. Enlightened hospitality, as he calls it, goes beyond providing outstanding technical service (outstanding food, or in our case – outstanding content delivery) to creating an emotional experience by making the guest feel connected, cared for, valued, and that they “belong”. According to Danny Meyer, we think of relationship building and hospitality as intuitive but there is much more to it than that. HQ has already identified all the skills and behaviors that staff need to employ to create an enlightened experience. Our staff, and one of our local congregations, participated in an HQ training this summer.. Reflecting on the training, the congregation’s early childhood educator said, “Now I approach my colleagues, staff and parents with the hospitality lessons always top of mind. …It has set a different tone and manner which is positive and contagious. My aim is to model the behavior I would like to see from everyone.”
  3. Community Organizing can offer powerful methodologies that shift our efforts from starting with creating programs to holding conversations that uncover passions and put parent’s priorities at the core of every initiative. These conversations can build relationships, connect parents to one another, and then empower them to design and co-construct meaningful experiences. We learn from Meir Lakein of JOIN for Justice, that Community Organizing shifts the paradigm by putting people and relationships first. On campuses across the country, Hillel has changed its strategy and uses this approach to first identify student/peer “networkers”, and then offers them additional training in outreach and relationship building. This approach can be a successful paradigm to engage parents with young children.

We believe it is time for our institutions and communities invested in early family engagement to shift to a relationship paradigm and to value and invest in strategies that will train our leaders and practitioners in relationship building as their main practice. Our plan is to support and facilitate robust networking among practitioners; utilize multiple platforms to spread innovative relationship building models; offer training by specialists in essential skills that come from the disciplines outlined above; and continue research with families to begin to measure impact. We are seeking partners and funding necessary to build this capacity. We believe this approach will lead to a monumental change in the practice of early family engagement and the lives of parents with young children so that next year our story of early family engagement will be different.

Shellie Dickstein is Director of Early Childhood and Family Engagement, and Shariee Calderone is a Communal Education Consultant at The Jewish Education Project.

If you are interested in joining the Coalition of Family Engagement Innovators, please contact At The Jewish Education Project we spark and spread innovations that expand the reach and increase the impact of Jewish education. Learn more at

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  1. says

    We couldn’t agree more with everything said in this article. And we have created a program at our synagogue, “Guess Who’s Coming to Shabbas?” that is completely lay led and designed to engage congregants with one another, but not in the synagogue, but in other congregants’ homes for Shabbat dinner. Our first year showed 82% inclusion, meaning over 80% of members had either hosted or had been invited to someone’s home for Shabbat. The program’s success is now being replicated in synagogues around the country. A recent essay in CJ’s Voices magazine goes into detail.
    Periodic webinars are now allowing others to “see” the program, and a kit provides everything needed to get it up and running. What we need now is for models like this to be embraced my the early childhood educators so that we grab and keep these families from day one.

  2. says

    Debbie, I’m so impressed by the commitment to come together regularly and the joy community members are experiencing in relationship with each other. These are the types of models we need to continue to talk about and spread. Shellie and I agree that efforts that include (or are driven by) families with young children, and supported by the early childhood center, have a wealth of potential.

  3. says

    I appreciate the learning in this blog posting – and it is to intellectual. One of the key answers lies in the “Guess Who is Coming to Shabbas” relationship building effort. We need to get relationship building out of our head and into our heart. At the core of a successful relationship building effort one will find passion. Which then requires us to ask, “what are we passionate about”? The more focused we can be about our passion the more attractive our organization will become.

  4. says

    Thanks for the kind words about “Guess Who’s Coming to Shabbas?” Let me know if you want to learn how to bring it to your organization. We run periodic webinars, with the next being Nov. 6 at 8 pm Eastern. Happy to have you on board to see the program in action.

  5. says

    Thank you Yoram for sharing your thoughts about tapping into people’s passions. Sometimes we are too in our heads, or we like to label things for the purpose of explaining and sharing. But I can say that our conversations need to be (and are) focused on practical ideas that put people and passions first. Each of the disciplines we mentioned in the article start with the people and not with the programs. It’s about listening to people helping families live at the center of their experiences.

  6. Mary Ann Oppenheimer says

    The importance of relationship building is not just true for young parents with children. It is also true for older couples (and singles) who may not have children. We have moved several times for my husband’s career, and often have found that beyond individuals who may be kind about making introductions and/or introducing themselves, that the work of reaching out is about 90% ours. Jewish organizations (synagogues, federations) rarely have structured ways to incorporate/engage newcomers. Whether it is an organized method for inviting people to dinner, or simply for taking the to an event, or whatever the appropriate means might be. As a newcomer to several communities over the past 20 years, I/we have frequently walked into a dinner or event knowing no one and found that unless I/we made a move to meet people, I/we would not be welcomed, as everyone was too busy catching up with their own friends. The methods suggested here for young families are applicable on a larger scene, too.