Lessons from Sesame Street
By Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegold
The podcast that most often plays in my home is the children’s science podcast Wow in the World. Its success (in its first season in 2017, it reached five million downloads in five months), says producer Meredith Halpern-Ranzer, is largely due to the fact that families listen together, during car rides, or, as in my home, over the breakfast table. The podcast, geared toward “curious kids and their grownups” draws its content from recent scientific studies published in academic journals, information that matters to the parents themselves. Halpert-Ranzer started her career in children’s entertainment at the Sesame Street Workshop, the pioneers of the idea that children’s programming needed to appeal to parents. Much of children’s entertainment has followed the Sesame Street paradigm, creating programming that operates on two levels simultaneously. When I watch an animated movie or listen to a podcast like Wow in the World with my own three children, ages five through nine, the adult references go right over the heads of my kids, but they certainly keep me, as the parent, engaged.
Once, we educated children; now we educate families. This change in focus holds true in Jewish education as well, as reflected in a recent series about family engagement in eJewish Philanthropy, which highlights the many ways that Jewish education is now understood to be a family endeavor. Whether in day school education, bar mitzvah preparation, or Jewish camp, an educator most effectively reaches the Jewish child by including the parent in that enterprise.
In partnership with a committee of parents, I developed our congregation’s Family High Holy Day Experience to engage families on the holiest days of the year. Teens read Torah, younger children lead a song or prayer or open the ark, and toddlers participate in a Torah procession around the room. In our pilot year, I took more and more notice of the many adults in the room. A child might attend the family service with both parents and a set of grandparents. The content was geared toward children, but I felt a responsibility to address the adults’ own spiritual needs on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I began to consciously craft some content toward the adults, adding adult-focused comments and even humor. Parents began to tell me they enjoyed the family service for themselves – they were gaining insights that spoke to their own spiritual experience of the holidays. Soon, there were uncles and aunts asking to come to the family service, even though they did not have children of their own.
When we use family education as an opportunity to teach on multiple levels, we keep the parents in the room, literally and figuratively, staying engaged in their own Jewish educational process. And Jewish ideas easily address multiple generations – themes of forgiveness, kindness, Jewish identity, and gratitude to God can be expressed to preschoolers, teenagers, and adults alike. In our holiday family service, when teaching about the importance of examining one’s deeds, I include examples from a parent’s life (had a hard day at work and took it out on my kids). When I mention this, I hear laughter of recognition from parents and kids alike. I often introduce a prayer or song with a bit of adult content. It might be quick enough that the children barely notice, but the adults catch it, and I see it has impact. A children’s song can become a scaffold for adult concepts. (Even singing “Torah Torah” can be enriched by a brief reference to the idea that our Jewish lives are built around the Divine Word.) The kids benefit on their own level, while the adult experience has been enriched.
The best part of offering Jewish education on two levels is that children see their parents engaged in authentic spiritual work. The experience, for the child, moves from a place of “telling me” to “showing me” – kids see their parents practicing what they preach, as parents demonstrate their Jewish values in real time, with their children by their side. Furthermore, when the parents and children are both engaged in the room, then the conversation is more likely to continue outside the room, perhaps on the way home or around the dining room table, creating a bridge between the education of the institution and the education of the home.
In the field of children’s entertainment, the amateur YouTube video is the opposite of the Sesame Street paradigm. These videos, geared only toward the child, are often irritating to parents, so they leave the room while their children watch. If we, as Jewish educators, fail to address the needs of the adults, then our Jewish Family Education is in danger of becoming the equivalent of these YouTube videos. I’ve certainly fallen into this trap as an educator, leading a Shabbat program that the children enjoy, while parents schmooze at the back of the room, or even leave until the program is over. To be sure, parents appreciate the opportunity to socialize with their Jewish friends. But we can do better. And when the parents lose interest, what’s to say they’ll even keep bringing the kids? In the future, they might choose a different activity for their family, one which they will all enjoy, preventing us the opportunity to educate not only the parents, but the kids, as well.
Teaching on two levels, in the spirit of Sesame Street or Wow in the World, can be effective in many Jewish educational contexts. In Jewish day schools, when parents are invited to participate in a school activity, the program often focuses on the needs of the child – the parent helps out with a craft project, or parents are invited to sit in the audience at a chagigah performance. In these parent-child settings, can we offer some adult content? In supplemental religious schools, can we send home thought questions to be discussed over the family dinner table, which are universal enough to engage parents together with children? In Jewish camp, can we encourage parents, in their daily email to their child, to answer a Jewish question that the children themselves are addressing at camp learning sessions that week? When I teach a Jewish parenting course, I offer tips for raising a child with Jewish values, but also include content that speaks to the parent in her own Jewish life. When I run a preschool Shabbat program, I weave in grown-up concepts of Shabbat. Whenever I have children and adults together, I try to speak to the adults, even with the kids in the room.
This approach not only enriches the parent’s experience, but it makes it more likely that they will remain lifelong learners in the future. Adult Jewish education programming often attracts empty nesters and retirees for the obvious reasons – they have time to attend a lecture in the evening, without the pull of after-school activities, homework and bedtime; they often have daytime hours available for enriching their Jewish knowledge. In my own synagogue, our adult education offerings tend to attract an older population. We struggle to reach the parents in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, because their lives are so focused on the intensity of child-rearing and busy careers.
Jewish institutions may offer adult classes and programs geared toward parents, and these certainly benefit the parents who take advantage of them, but these offerings become yet another commitment for busy parents to take on. Parents do, however, already make time to be present for their children. Once they have made this commitment to attend a high holiday service, or school performance, or camp visiting day, they are now a captive audience – these are precious opportunities for adult education! Keeping parents engaged in their own Jewish learning makes it more likely that, decades later, when they do have more time on their hands, they will attend those educational lectures.
In the burgeoning field of Jewish Family Education, we often think of a parent as an accessory to her child’s education. Once we have the adults in the room, let’s address them as adult learners on their own terms. If Sesame Street could do it with the ABC’s, we can certainly do it for the Aleph Bet and beyond.
Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegold is the director of education and spiritual enrichment at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal. She was ordained as part of the inaugural class of Yeshivat Maharat.