Broadening the Circle: Parents’ Role as (Co-)Experiential Jewish Educator

Photo courtesy M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.

By Hallie Shapiro Devir

[This article is the second in a series written by participants in the inaugural Senior Educators Cohort at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.]

This year we are celebrating a bar mitzvah in our department. It is the thirteenth year of Voices: The Chicago Jewish Teen Foundation, a teen philanthropy program that engages approximately 25 teens per year from across the metropolitan area in the sacred work of Jewish giving. As this program has ‘come of age’ we have learned many important lessons but one of the most significant, for me, is the importance of sharing the learning experience with our participants’ parents.

I began integrating learning experiences for our teens’ parents into the annual opening dinner of Voices a number of years ago, hoping to give parents a small taste of what their teens would experience over the following nine months. Over time what used to be a brief interactive experience has evolved into something deeper and more meaningful, with programs we now incorporate to get parents thinking about the issues their teens will confront during Voices and to talk about ways they can explore those issues at home. Ideally, these programs will lay the groundwork for the parents to see their teens as capable of making difficult decisions and participating in the family’s Jewish giving – what we call the dinner table giving circle, to stress its informality and achievability. By broadening their giving circle to include their families, we believe teens can remain engaged in the work of Jewish philanthropy – and the Jewish community – long after they graduate from Voices.

I’ll be honest: some years are better than others. Some parents are really excited to participate in an experiential program for an hour on a Sunday evening; others are less enthusiastic. But there are always “aha moments”. This year, as part of a longer values clarification program I asked parents to create a series of visual representations of their giving. I asked them to break up their charitable contributions in several ways, including by theme (environment, poverty, health, etc.) or by organization, by repeating vs. new giving, and finally by parent-directed giving vs. giving their children a voice in the decision-making. For most of the families, parents alone made decisions about 75-100% of the family’s tzedakah. One mother, however, shared that her children were in charge of 100% of the family’s giving. Surprised, I asked how they had made that decision. She replied, “My older daughter did Voices a few years ago. We started having those dinner table conversations, and the other kids got into it. Now they are in charge of doing all of the research and making the case for giving to particular organizations. As a family, we have a certain amount to give away but the kids usually raise on their own much more than that amount for the organizations they choose.”

The moment could not have been more perfectly scripted; her story was unexpected and presented the other parents with a radically different perspective than their own, immediately after spending time thinking through their own giving habits and clarifying the values that guided those habits. Rather than ending the program with a plea to parents that they include their teen (and other children) in family giving decisions as a way to build on their experience in Voices, we could end with a question: how might your family giving change in the coming year based on what you explored here tonight?

This approach, when properly employed, results in learning, openness and growth, even in a relatively short, one-time program. By taking parents through a thought-provoking values clarification exercise rooted in using conflict as a tool to explore opposing views or ideas, a pedagogy I have been exploring through the M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education (link to Senior Educators Cohort, they experience the same challenges their teens will face. When they can articulate their own values – and have a passionate but constructive disagreement about values with other parents they barely know – they are better prepared to have these conversations with their own teens.

At M2, we found this idea – that constructive conflict can open us to a deep exploration of values – in the profound words of John Dewey: “Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates invention. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving… conflict is a sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.”

In many ways, a program like Voices is the perfect example of experiential Jewish education, as the teen participants serve as board members on a functioning foundation, learning and doing all the steps necessary to make their grants. We are now thinking more holistically about the role that parents play and the influence they have on their teen’s continued engagement in philanthropy outside of the formal program, as well as their teen’s desire to explore other facets of their Jewish identity through continued engagement in the community. We have learned through our experience that parents play a critical role in experiential Jewish education: we don’t want them to be simply conduits for information about meeting locations and times, we want them to be ready to engage their teens in active conversations, to view their Jewish identities as growing and ever-changing, and to support and encourage their teens’ self-agency. To achieve this, we need parents to be both experiential Jewish educators and learners themselves. As much as we want parents to play these roles, we also recognize that the parents did not sign up for Voices, their teens did. We have very limited in-person interaction with them and since we can’t communicate these nuanced ideas effectively by email, we place a high priority on making sure to make good use of the brief time we have with them in the beginning of the program.

After my experience at the parent program this year, I’m convinced now more than ever that some form of parent engagement should be a part of all experiential Jewish education. No matter how successful the program, there is always a way to increase the impact, to broaden the circle. Regardless of the type of program – for this is certainly not limited to teen philanthropy programs – helping parents embrace the philosophies and methodologies of experiential Jewish education by becoming participants themselves, can empower them to move from the role of schlepper-in-chief to one of co-educator, continuously expanding the Jewish educational horizons of their teens.

Hallie Shapiro Devir is Associate VP for Community Outreach and Engagement at Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and a participant in the inaugural Senior Educators Cohort (SEC) at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.

Applications are now open for Cohort 2 of the Senior Educators Cohort. For more information and to request an application visit