Jewish Family Education: New and Improved

by Dr. Ron Wolfson

Last fall, I joined my family to celebrate the first birthday of our first grandchild, Ellie Brooklyn, which happened to be on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. Yes, her middle name is Brooklyn, because one of her great grandparents and a grandma hail from there, the “B” remembers my late mother Bernice, and her parents just like the name. We have come to call her “Ellie B.”

Having learned the value of creative family celebration from her mother, Ellie B’s mom developed a “bee” theme for the intersecting occasions, combining the ritual traditions of a honey-infused Rosh Hashanah with a birthday party and fashioning a unique Jewish family experience.

The family is the single most important influence on Jewish identity development – not just for children, but for adults as well. There is no greater immersive experience than the home.

At a time when the organized Jewish community struggles to engage independent-minded “sovereign self” Jews and non-Jews raising Jewish children, it behooves our leaders to renew a commitment to reach and teach Jewish families how to bring joyous and meaningful Jewish celebration, conversation and commitment into homes.

Since 1989, I have joined with colleagues to shape the Jewish Family Education field of practice. Under the sponsorship of the former Whizin Center for the Jewish Future at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), the Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life offered annual conferences that attracted hundreds of educators, teachers, social workers, lay leaders, cantors and rabbis from across the community. They learned theories and best practices of engaging and empowering families, and equipped themselves with tools to strengthen both the “familyness” and the “Jewishness” of the home, whatever its composition.

The impact of this work has been profound. There is hardly a synagogue, religious or day school, early childhood program or summer camp that does not offer some form of Jewish family education.

During the past 20 years, many of these institutions hired Jewish family educators or assigned senior personnel to engage Jewish families. Many central agencies created networking groups of Jewish family educators. And organizations such as local federations, the Legacy Heritage Foundation, the Berman Foundation, the Rose Community Foundation and the Grinspoon Foundation stepped up to support synagogues, community-wide efforts, and innovative interventions directly into the home.

Despite these successes, the field itself has been, ironically, somewhat homeless.

Whizin’s faculty of experienced Jewish family educators morphed into the “Consortium for the Future of the Jewish Family” and offered professional development tracks at CAJE Conferences. But CAJE disappeared. Then Siegel College invited the Consortium to partner in offering sessions.

To be sure, the Consortium continued to influence the field, acting as educational consultants to projects such as the new “Shalom Sesame” television series and advising local communities on the practice of Jewish family education.

But the lack of footing has affected momentum and maximizing impact.

In 2010, a think tank of veteran and emerging Jewish family educators convened by The Covenant Foundation envisioned a renewal of the field for the 21st century, using modern tools to push it forward.

The group produced a comprehensive plan for creating a Community of Practice of Jewish Family Educators utilizing social networking, web-based learning, and regional professional development conferences. And with a multi-year grant to support a renewed institution, Shevet: The Jewish Family Education Exchange was created.

In its first few months, an on-line Community of Practice has been created, a regional conference took place in partnership with the Jewish Experiences for Families arm of the Alliance for Jewish Education in Detroit, and a national curriculum is being written. Additional regional conferences are planned.

And other foundations have joined to support Shevet, including the Gladys K. Crown Foundation and the Kripke Institute for Jewish Family Literacy.

Still, there is much to be done. More than two decades after the birth of the discipline, Jewish family educators are not widespread or empowered enough, and a new generation of families is seeking engagement and community.

I am witnessing this first-hand. Just before Ellie B was born, the family moved to a new city. While there are many early childhood programs and welcoming synagogues in the area, not one Jewish institution offered any family education program targeted to parents with a child under the age of one.

To be sure, the family has received a warm welcome from individual rabbis and friends and they signed up for the wonderful PJ Library, but the only organized activity was a business called “My Gym.”

Something is wrong with this picture. My hope is that the Jewish communal world recognizes the imperative of Jewish family education and supports Shevet as a catalyst for its renewal and continuity. The future of our Jewish families and our future as a community demands this be a primary goal.

Dr. Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education at the American Jewish University. He is the author of a series of books for Jewish family celebration, including volumes on Shabbat, Passover, Hanukkah and mourning (Jewish Lights Publishing), and is co-founder, Synagogue 3000.