Let’s get Serious about Relationship Weaving and Increase the Potential for Communal Change in Family Engagement

by Shellie Dickstein

While research today is pointing to the power of social networks and relationships to influence behavior, many of our Jewish educational professionals, including those in the field of early family engagement, have not yet shifted their thinking and approach.

The 2011 study conducted by Mark Rosen on Jewish Early Engagement in New York commissioned by UJA-Federation of New York, states that, “Social networks play an important role in parental decision making. Parents’ choices are often influenced by friends – they seek recommendations from peers and go where their friends go.” And the recent UJA-Federation 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York finds “a very close and powerful association of Jewish social connection with level of Jewish engagement.”

In order to build on the findings from the 2011 research conducted by Mark Rosen, our Early Childhood and Family Engagement team at The Jewish Education Project, wanted to gain a deeper understanding of how beginning Jewish families experience this new life stage, how they form relationships with other parents, and about their relationship to Judaism. To find out, we spoke to those parents who normally do not talk about their Jewish lives. Under the leadership of our Associate Director for Strategic Research and Insights, we conducted a series of parent focus groups this past summer with “unengaged” Jewish moms with 1st children ages 0-2 from Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn. We recruited participants by posting on parent and neighborhood listserves, and in facebook groups, by standing in front of baby clothing stores, and through word of mouth. Our final group of 35 moms varied in age from 20’s to 40’s. Some worked full time and some part time; there were one or two single moms and some had non-Jewish spouses – all were raising their children Jewish.

When we spoke to the moms, we were struck by their profound desire for intimate peer relationships (they compared finding friends to dating for spouses); their deep interest in experiencing food, “fun” and celebration; and their focus on managing and navigating their challenging transition to parenthood. We heard loudly and clearly that these new parents primary focus is not on increasing their Jewish connections or practice, but on being the best parent they can be and on finding relationships that support them. They often spoke about seeking and finding meaningful connections in “organic” ways – meaning, not too controlled or contrived by others. Here is what two moms shared with us that suggest this approach:

“I think if there were a website where somebody could sign up to cook on this day or that … if you have within a neighborhood a group of people who do not have a physical space but want to have dinner every few months… there could be a community aspect to this website. Something for cooking on Friday nights or holidays.” Park Slope mom of 22 month old

“And you could find other Jewish families [on this website], because for me, it’s hard to find other Jewish families. I would like to have some Jewish friends where we can get together on a Friday night and have Shabbat dinner”.  Upper West Side mom of a 15 month old

We also found that some moms had a sense of the community they might like to belong to but not sure how to find it or achieve it. Another mom said, “Growing up in a Jewish community, everyone is kind of there for each other… I have never seen that in any other community…. For example. I have friends that live in Englewood, NJ. When they had their babies, they had a calendar of who is going to cook for [the mom] who just gave birth and all their meals are taken care of for a while. In the city I asked my friends, where is my dinner? Upper West Side Mom of 14 month old

It became evident as we reflected upon the data that the focus in our early engagement models and early childhood settings needs to shift from program to relationships. Not just building relationships between the professionals and parents, but more importantly, helping professionals to catalyze and support relationship development among and between parents themselves. We believe what is needed is not just a shift in practice to adding time for parents to meet each other during content driven programs, but exploring entirely new approaches that are designed with a relationship weaving perspective from the outset. This would require a shift of outcomes from content acquisition (knowing how to light Shabbat Candles, or sing Shabbat songs) to relationship development. We need to measure success not only by how many people attend a program or how much they know or practice, but by how many leave with new friends.

There are currently communal family engagement initiatives across the country experimenting with relationship approaches such as the concierge and family networker models, and other organizational based models. What can we learn about what it takes to do effective relationship building from these models? What are other models for creating meaningful relationships and friendships? Isn’t it time we collectively shared our learning so we can expand and spread these new approaches? Here in New York we are poised to: support a coalition of family engagement practitioners innovating in this area; explore and identify the skills and resources needed to shift and do the work of family relationship weaving; and document and spread innovative new approaches. Does anyone else want to join us? Galvanizing our resources will help more parents develop the deep peer connections they are seeking and that they need for Jewish growth. It is time to get serious about relationship weaving and increase the potential for communal change in family engagement.

You can read the full research summary here.

Shellie Dickstein is the Director of Early Childhood and Family Engagement at The Jewish Education Project.

If you are interested in learning more about the other findings from our parent focus groups or if you are working on relationship building approaches with beginning Jewish families, we would love to hear from you. Please contact Marni Thompson-Tilove, Jenna Corman Mandel or Shariee Calderone, Early Childhood and Family Engagement Community Consultants for The Jewish Education Project.