4 Ideas for Engaging Families with Young Children in Jewish Life

young children - URJBy Cathy Rolland

Every new parent understands the pressure and stress associated with finding the best ways to create a rich and fulfilling future for their children. Faced with societal expectations, money constraints, and more programmatic opportunities than ever for their young ones, Jewish life may not always make it to the top of the priority list.

As a part of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Communities of Practice work, we’re partnering with congregations (both those with and without preschools) to further and more effectively engage families with young children in congregational life. The full results of this work can be found in a new resource, Engaging Families with Young Children. Here’s a look at some of the best principles:

1. Engagement is a congregation-wide activity, not an isolated program or department.

Engagement must be a true value of the entire congregation, including those in leadership positions. To sustain any effort to build a community of parents with young children, congregational leadership needs to fully support these efforts, ensuring that holidays, programs, and services focus on the idea of family.

At Temple Emanu-El in Utica, N.Y., leaders initiated a number of changes that add up to a large impact for parents. They installed a changing table in the restroom, created a musical family service and dinner once a month before congregational services, began holding family Havdalah events and playgroups, and reconfigured the youth committee to include parents of kids up to age 18. They’re also involved in the community PJ Library® program operated by the local JCC. The rabbi, herself a young mother, has developed relationships with the other parents in the community, and parents have come to share responsibility for congregational programming. In two years, participation rates have more than doubled. Just as parents make their homes “kid-safe” before bringing children into the world, so must congregations create spaces for families that foster the understanding that they’re supported by an entire community.

2. Focus on engagement, not enrollment.

Community isn’t measured by how many people attend a program but by the quality and depth of the relationships between people in attendance. Your congregation can host 100 great programs a year, but if no meaningful relationships exist between the congregation and its community members, nobody benefits from great programming. Temple Beth El in Charlotte, N.C., has taken engagement to a new level by building The Porch, a community of young adults and parents, whose name symbolizes the hospitality and neighborliness of the South. The Porch offers a variety of weekly and monthly activities, including some for adults/parents only, some for parents to enjoy with their children, and others for the whole community together. Parents appreciate the opportunity to engage with a community of peers, and regular participants now take responsibility for planning a weekly Torah study group that meets at Whole Foods. When congregations form relationships with families with young children, they create a community for today and for the future.

3. Do your research to figure out what young families need.

Rather than focusing on what families with young children can contribute to the synagogue, synagogues need to see themselves as having something to offer those starting their parenting journey. Synagogues must be intentional in their efforts to meet parents’ needs, and that begins with knowing what those needs are. The last 10 years have yielded a wealth of national research into families of Jewish children, and it’s equally important to know about local trends. What venues or activities are popular for these families in your community? Where do people go for information about local community life? Which organizations currently serve this cohort well? Lisa Farber Miller of the Rose Community Foundation says, “Providing services for parents with young Jewish children presents a rare opportunity for synagogues to be relevant to young families who are looking for places to spend their child-related dollars.” Synagogues can provide inspirational Jewish experiences that engage families in meaningful ways from an early age – if they truly see it as their congregational mission.

4. Experiment and reflect then do it all over again!

Congregations that have made significant strides in engaging families with young children are those that have created a culture of experimentation and reflection, where risk-taking is both supported and encouraged.The early childhood education director at Temple Sinai in Summit, N.J., wanted to do something new to engage families with young children: a Pajama Tot Shabbat. The congregation involved all of their stakeholders in the decision process, from teachers and early childhood families to clergy and lay leaders, and though some initially expressed concern that pajamas in the sanctuary would show a lack of proper decorum, Pajama Tot Shabbat was a great success representative of collaborative preparation. During the reflective conversation afterwards, the rabbi encouraged the director to schedule more such events – and even offered to wear his own pajamas! The whole community discovered the importance of staying true to the synagogue’s mission while providing families with high-quality, innovative experiences and accessible, relevant Jewish content.

Looking for more ways to engage families with young children? The URJ’s new publication, Engaging Families with Young Children, expands on all of the points here and offers five more, as well as a number of additional ideas, resources, and examples from congregations across North America.

Engaging Families with Young Children is one in a series of three publications that helps leaders strengthen their congregations by offering best principles and a range of resources. The others are Paving the Road to Meaningful Young Adult Engagement and Reimagining Financial Support for Your 21st Century Congregation.

Cathy Rolland is Director of Early Childhood Education at the URJ.

Elizabeth Leff, the URJ’s 2015 Strengthening Congregations CLIP Intern, also contributed significantly to this post.

Cross-posted on the URJ.org Blog