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