13 lessons Learned from Parenting Through a Jewish Lens in its B’nai Mitzvah Year
By Erica Streit-Kaplan
I first heard about Parenting Through a Jewish Lens (PTJL) – then called Ikkarim – from a friend in 2006. We were seated next to each other at a Rosh Chodesh group as I nursed my infant. She raved about the program, then in its second year, and told me I should sign up.
Fast forward several years, and in 2012 I registered for PTJL and agreed to be the “parent liaison” for my congregation’s class. My daughters were four and seven. I loved the profound, distraction-free conversations I had with other parents in the class; they helped me become more confident in my own parenting decisions – Jewish and otherwise – and I made friendships that continue to this day.
After working for many years in another field, in 2014, I was hired as coordinator of PTJL. I have been delighted to help shape and refine the curriculum and connect with parents as they engage in their own Jewish parenting journeys. With support from CJP and Hebrew College, we run 15-20 classes per year in the greater Boston area.
When people hear about my position, they assume that I teach the class – but I don’t. I work on the many invisible yet key steps that keep PTJL functioning and growing. The team of us who work “behind the scenes” recruits and trains instructors, manages outreach and marketing, and connects with parents, congregations, and schools year-round.
As PTJL heads into its B’nai Mitzvah year, this is a fitting moment to reflect on and share our “lessons learned” with the larger Jewish community. We’ve been successful for nearly 13 years because we know that parents:
- Are hungry for community. “New moms groups” can provide support for mothers, but they typically stop after the first year. They often only meet during daytime hours, an impossible time for many working moms (not to mention dads). PTJL offers classes during the day, in the evenings, and on weekends. Parents can build authentic, meaningful connections with other parents at times that work for them. We also offer free babysitting for daytime classes.
- Have questions and concerns. How do I prevent and handle temper tantrums and sibling fights? How do I parent in the age of social media? How do I raise my child to be a mensch? How can I fortify my child to bounce back from – if not avoid altogether – pitfalls and setbacks? Discipline can confound parents; with yelling described as the new spanking, parents can feel confused and guilty. Parents want a safe space to discuss issues that matter to them.
- Want to be accepted for who they are. The definition of a “nuclear” family now includes single-parent, LGBTQ, interfaith and racially diverse families; we actively welcome parents from all backgrounds. It’s also intentional that parents who don’t know Hebrew can pronounce and understand “Parenting Through a Jewish Lens.” We don’t say “PTJL is for Jewish parents.” Instead, we say “PTJL brings Jewish wisdom to parents and families.”
- Are looking for timeless wisdom. In the era of 24/7 social media, parents often feel confused and pressured by the deluge of parenting opinions and advice. The idea that Jewish tradition offers thousands of years of wisdom comforts parents, who are relieved to be reminded that parenting challenges are universal. We also regularly update our curriculum to include meaningful contemporary readings.
- Want to reflect on spirituality. Young children challenge us with their amazing questions: Where is God? What happens when we die? Parents want advice on what to say, especially if they don’t consider themselves spiritual or believers. Such conversations are hard to come by, even for parents who are affiliated with a congregation or a Jewish day school. Parents benefit from processing their own feelings and concerns with other thoughtful adults.
- Need support at all stages. Parents of tween and teens need support too, so we created classes for those parents as well. According to a recent study, mothers of middle school-age students suffer from depression more than mothers of any other aged children, even more than parents of newborns. With tweens and teens beginning the process of separation, parents struggle with how to respond and, like their children, undergo their own identity shifts. The first session of Parenting Your Tween Through a Jewish Lens introduces the concept of tzimtzum, which literally means “contraction.” According to tradition, God contracted to make space for creation. We encourage parents to consider how to consciously “contract” in a way that works for them, and even honor their tweens’ and teens’ growing independence.
- Want shorter commitments. PTJL started as a 19-session program. Over the years we’ve refined the curriculum and condensed sessions. With changing demographics and busier families, today’s parents can’t imagine committing to a long course. PTJL is now offered in two six-session modules, Part One and Part Two. Parents can register for the first module, and if they like it, they can decide to sign up for more. And many do!
- Register after a personal touch. One-on-one outreach is key for recruitment. Host sites advertise upcoming PTJL classes to their families, and we spread the word via print and social media in the larger community. However, the most successful outreach strategy is having cheerleaders within a congregation or community who individually encourage others to take PTJL. Personal conversations, either from a leader or a parent encouraging his/her friends to take time for PTJL, are what lead most parents to sign up.
- Care about cost. With our new model, the registration fee is just $95 for six sessions. Many parent remark on how reasonable this is. But for others, this highly subsidized rate is still more than they can spend. Many young families are overloaded paying for child care, diapers, student loans, housing, and more. We are committed that cost never be a barrier to participating in PTJL. Owing to the generosity of CJP, the program’s funder, we are able to offer scholarships to those who would otherwise not be able to enroll.
- Need some persuasion. Even for those who can afford the fee, there is ambivalence. It’s hard to prioritize a parenting class that they don’t need. Busy working parents may feel reluctant to leave their kids for an adult-only activity. We encourage parents to sign up by reinforcing the message that taking time to reflect on their parenting will help their entire family.
- Rely on talented instructors. Our faculty come to us with a “package” of skills; they are strong facilitators, Jewish-ly knowledgeable, approachable, welcoming, and non-judgmental. They are often asked for advice or referrals on a range of issues: Can you suggest a therapist for my child? Can you recommend a Jewish book for a child who’s scared of the dark? Why hang a mezuzah? It can be challenging for an instructor to leave his/her own preferences or opinions at the door, but that is essential. An interfaith family starts celebrating Shabbat with challah, candles and shrimp scampi for dinner? If that works for the family, we encourage the instructor to celebrate it!
- Are religiously diverse. We embrace diversity of observance and education. Our sourcebook aims to serve all our constituencies, from observant Jews to secular Jews to non-Jews with other faith traditions. Instructors select texts that are most relevant to their class population.
- Want to learn, grow and make friends. Parents come to PTJL wanting different things. We’re balancing three related yet distinct components in one program – Jewish learning, parenting support AND community building. Some parents come in wanting one aspect more than another…. We love when participants say that they’ve gotten what they came for, and much more!
Like the kvelling parents of a B’nai Mitzvah child, we are deeply proud of how Parenting Through a Jewish Lens has grown in these 13 years. We look forward to guiding it into adulthood
Erica Streit-Kaplan is Program Coordinator for Parenting Through a Jewish Lens. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org