A New Model for Family Education

courtesy Temple Sinai
courtesy Temple Sinai

By Betsy S. Stone, Ph.D.

Liberal Jews have been batting the idea of Family Education about for decades. We are still struggling to understand what it is and why it matters. For the past two years, as a member of the teaching staff at Temple Sinai in Stamford, CT, I have been running a 6th-7th grade Family Ed project that is successful and well attended – and it’s all family ed, all the time!

I work with these assumptions: that parents and early adolescents actually want to have important discussions, but simply don’t know how to begin; that early adolescents CAN have deep thoughts and can articulate these thoughts; that much of the conversation within families is sadly focused on scheduling and arrangements; and that Judaism can provide a framework for families to talk about important topics – which can create greater intimacy within families.

Judaism can provide opportunities for families to open discussions about the big questions that face middle schoolers – Why is there evil? Why do good people suffer? What is my place in the world? Middle schoolers – who are learning about the Holocaust, about war and famine, who see their friends suffer with emotional, physical and financial problems – want to talk about these issues, but we provide them with few forums. So they take to social media and each other, eschewing the very real help they might receive from their parents and other adults. Or they suffer in silence.

Parents are also struggling. At a time when parents are bombarded with information about the risks their children face, their children and schools both tell them to back away. Whether about news stories about drugs in middle school or rashes of suicides that sweep communities or the very real pressures our children are unprepared to face, parents know they must be involved. But how, when both their children and their schools are telling them to keep their distance?

Good family education can help us bridge this divide. Our program, which is geared towards 6th and 7th graders and their parents, has four distinct components that, working together, help form the model of Jewish adulthood: worship, learning, tzedakah and community.

Why these four? It is essential that adolescents see their parents in action in these areas. Our worship is exploratory and personal. While we may use the siddur, we use it as an outline for personal and contextual understanding of prayer. For many adults, Jewish learning stops post b’nai mitzvah. This class offers adults an opportunity to restart their Jewish education and identification. Tzedakah is what translates these ideas into action – which in turn makes them real. I hope that this class creates community and encourages families to remain synagogue affiliated.

The program meets monthly, on Shabbat morning (offered as an alternative to the traditional weekly Sunday morning religious school). We require a commitment from each family that at least one parent will attend each session with their child. We begin with services, which are quite different month to month. Sometimes we use a traditional model, worship that is similar to the worship the children will lead at their b’nai mitzvah. But our worship has also included meditation, a learners’ minyan with descriptions and questions about the structure of services, and alternative prayers (often written by families). Our goal is to link the focus of the service to the learning that will follow it.

The center piece of the program is the learning that takes place. I believe that each session must have four aspects:

  1. an intellectual access point
  2. Jewish content (most often Torah)
  3. opportunity for self-exploration (which must happen away from the original parent-child dyad)
  4. opportunity for emotional expression between parents and their children

The intellectual access point is the set induction. It is rarely Jewish in content, but rather an opportunity for the participants to join in a conversation about a topic that has meaning and familiarity in their daily lives. Examples of this have included: in what ways are we blessed in our families, what do you wish for when you blow out your birthday candles, or what is freedom.

When the group is intellectually engaged, I shift into Jewish content, often textual. This always occurs in unrelated adult-child pairs, in which the adult is responsible for making sure the child understands the content, both definitions and context. Each dyad is responsible to come up with questions about the text, which demands a level of engagement and understanding. We are in non-related pairs for two reasons: stepping away from familial roles and structures forces both parents and children to think differently and allows for children to lead.

Self-exploration is an essential part of educating tweens. They are ready and excited to be engaged in topics that are personally relevant, and it is our job to use Judaism as not only an access point to them, but also as an access point for them. Surprisingly, this is equally true of their parents – parents are actively seeking access to their children and themselves in ways that feel relevant to both parent and child. Self-exploration is done in multiple formats: sometimes as a joint or team writing exercise; sometimes as groups of parents and children; sometimes in artwork. The format must be adjusted to the topic to keep exploration interesting and applicable to daily life.

The final aspect of the learning exercise is clearly the most critical, though it takes the least time. I want parents and children to feel personally moved by their experience and to walk out of class feeling closer to each other. We accomplish this by returning to our original pairs of parents with their children and sharing personal information. This personal information is born out of self-exploration, but is more personal and informative due to being developed outside of family structures. Both parents and children are able to step out of their familial roles during self-exploration, and therefore share surprising and much more personal connections during this part of the class. This sharing is almost always represented in written form, using the product of the self-exploration exercise – this allows for a lasting impact, as well as for participants to go back and review what they’ve learned about themselves and their family partner.

Our topics have included lessons on blessings and being blessed, Hanukkah (which allows us to learn about the Talmud), Pesach (which is focused on the responsibilities of freedom and questions of free will) and prayer.

As an example, the outline of our session on prayer is as follows:

  • worship service that focuses their attention of what it might mean to pray, so some very different kinds of practice, e.g., meditation. Talk about which prayers work for us and which ones don’t as we go though the service. (about 1 hour)
  • Breakfast (brought every week by different parents) (15 minutes)
  • Set induction: what do you wish for when you blow out candles on a birthday cake? These are listed on a chalk board. Then ask the group, what do you pray for? Try to understand why these are different. What’s the difference between a prayer and a wish? This is our access point. All the children and parents “get this idea,” and there’s lots of participation. The parents know to let the children volunteer first, and wait for the children to begin the conversation.
  • Does prayer need to be prescribed? What do we pray for when no one is listening? Does siddur prayer work? This is the beginning of the Jewish content.
  • I then tell them the story of Abraham Joshua Heschel at Selma, which can be found here: www.centralsynagogue.org/news/detail/pray-with-your-feet
  • I introduce the idea that a central prayer is one that should work in all circumstances, and we talk about the sh’ma as both a daily and death bed prayer – and I tell them it might not be their central prayer.
  • Are there prayers that work in any circumstances? Does the sh’ma work for you? Why or why not? If you were going to write a prayer that worked in all circumstances, what would it include?
  • Then break them up into unrelated pairs.  Parents work as assistants to children, helping the children write three prayers that would work at any time. I give very little instructions on how to do this: I want the families to figure out what prayer is for them, whether it’s request or praise or hope. The parent-child pairs take this assignment seriously, as they do most of our work together. Then children help parents write three. Each unrelated pair has now written 6 prayers, which may be quite different. This is self-exploration.
  • Go back to related pairs. Using their 6 prayers, but not limited to them, they are assigned to write a prayer that works for their family, in good times and bad. It should work no matter how old they are. This is quite hard. Tell them to make it short. This is emotional expression and builds both emotional and intellectual intimacy.
  • I then hand out permanent markers, and tell the parents to write the family prayer on their children’s feet and the children to write on the parent’s feet, so they can walk their prayer until it wears off… I tell them that they are like Heschel – a leader and role model for your community. This produces lots of giggles and picture taking.

At the session after this class, we reviewed what we had accomplished with our prayers. This familiarizes participants who were not able to attend, and also allows for students and parents to reconnect with the idea of personal prayers. One student told the group that he was saying his prayer both at home and during his moment of silence in school – he had taken the prayer and truly made it his prayer.

Other topics have included the study of blessings (using Isaac’s blessings of Jacob and Esau as models and concluding by writing blessings from students to parents and parents to student), Hanukkah (using Maccabees as our first text, and then looking at Talmud on lighting Hanukkah candles) and free will (using text in Exodus about God hardening Pharoah’s heart). The year always concludes with a character study of God.

There must be flexibility, however, in the programming each time. When a child or an adult raises a big question (How do I pray if I’m not sure there’s a God?), all lesson plans get tabled for a refocus on this very important process. We talk about how questioning is a very Jewish activity, one which is encouraged by both historical writings and by our own families.

The final component, tzedakah, does not occur on Shabbat morning. Families are required to organize and participate in tzedakah activities, often as a group. So we wrap presents for children before Christmas, or clean up the local beach. We begin with a program we give to them: they must shop and make a family meal on a food stamp budget – using nothing from home except water and power. Most of the children have no idea about food stamps, and this can act as a real eye opener. The only restriction on these tzedakah projects is that they CANNOT be fundraising. We don’t want them to raise money; we want them to do good with their hands. Families organize all of the projects after the first month, and they are usually done in a group.

The feedback we have received on this program has been consistent. “I wish we had had this when I was in Religious School” and “I didn’t want to come to this class, but it’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done with my son.” Parents are thrilled to have this kind of discussion with their children, and report that the conversations may last for weeks. Attendance is quite good, but must be addressed as a requirement in the recruitment phase. We have opened a similar program for 4th and 5th graders and their parents, also very well attended.

Tweens and their parents are capable of very important conversations, exchanges that can create models of intimate and intellectual exchanges that may last a lifetime. Having these conversations within a Jewish context gives greater weight both to the conversations and to Judaism.

Betsy S. Stone, Ph.D. is a psychologist who has been active in Jewish Education for over 3 decades. She teaches in her home synagogue, Temple Sinai of Stamford, CT, and at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.