By Lisa Colton
Over the past several years I’ve been studying young Jewish families. By working with a number of organizations and foundations that focus on this population, I’ve learned – through both research and anecdotal experiences – something which I think is profound:
Most of us parents are making it up as we go along.
Now, that’s not a huge revelation, but it does have important implications for both our Jewish organizations and educational programs, as well as our community overall.
You know that famous George Harrison lyric, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll take you there”? Many parents have not articulated intentional goals for their Jewish family, and thus the paths of least resistance (cost, prioritization, schlep, conflict) prevail. But when you stop and ask parents what they really want for their family and for their children, when you dig a little deeper, they do have opinions, hopes and dreams. It’s not easy, however, to get to the personal, emotional, deep “WHY?,” whether you’re an interviewer asking questions, or a partner in a marriage.
In many cases, today’s young parents don’t want to sign up for a passive, “going through the motions” Judaism that they grew up with, but they don’t know what other options look like. Those who have achieved a clarity of vision, however, seem to be more confident in their decisions, and often opt for greater Jewish community engagement. They are the kind of parents who report, “I never thought I’d send my kids to day school, but here we are!”
So, how can we get more parents to think intentionally about their family’s Jewish journey?
In collaboration with the Samis Foundation, I’ve been looking into this question here in Seattle. The Jewish population of this city grew by 70% between 2001 and 2015, and I promise you it’s continued growing since then. A huge portion of these new Seattleites are young professionals and young families who are highly educated, juggling their professional lives, family responsibilities and making a life in a new city. A large portion of these families have partners who were not raised as a Jew, and the city overall is one of the least religiously engaged in the country. These families may not be actively seeking Jewish programs, but they are seeking meaningful Jewish experiences and relationships.
So as we approached planning the second year of Limmud Seattle, I discussed with co-chair Cara Abrams-Simonton the possibility that Limmud could be a unique platform to offer a valuble experience for these young families, while also expanding the Limmud community from the “engaged regulars” to a wider representation of Seattle’s Jewish community. She was game, and thus was conceived the Parenting (and Grandparenting) Track at Limmud Seattle.
We created a series of sessions to provide value and connection to multiple demographics, from those pregnant or with toddlers, to those with kids approaching b’nai mitzvah, all the way through grandparents. By creating a specific track, we hoped to engage two key audiences: First, the Limmud-curious who might decide to come when presented with real, immediate practical value for their lives; and second, those who have never heard of Limmud, but through targeted marketing via Jewish preschools and other programs might come for this specific offering.
We leveraged local talent and national experts to offer 6 sessions, one in each block of the day, including:
- ParentMap publisher Alayne Sulkin, who facilitated a panel of parents who spoke about their intentional goals and the corresponding decisions they have made;
- Jewish Federation Director of Engagement Rabbi Samuel Klein, who led a session titled “Remixed: The New Jewish Family,” helping everyone in the room feel that all of us, with all of our complex stories, belong to our Jewish community;
- Local author and parenting expert Linda Morgan who partnered with Jewish Grandparents Network co-founder David Raphael to lead a session on Jewish grandparenting;
- Paradigm Project early childhood educators Jenna Turner and Turhan Karabey who taught young parents how to use developmentally rich play to create a joyful Jewish home;
- Three local parents who shared their wide range of approaches to b’nai mitzvah as a meaningful rite of passage, even when facing certain challenges like dyslexia, focusing on the important role of the “mentor” in a rite of passage (who might be a tutor, but who provides mentoring value beyond learning to chant a Torah portion); and
- Storytelling experts Rabbi Elana Zaiman, Miriam Brosseau and David Raphael who taught us how to use stories to transmit values and build identity across generations.
We learned a few important lessons:
- Parents are really hungry to learn from each other. Today’s young parents know that their generation looks quite different from the Jewish generations before them. They have few models to draw from, often aren’t living close to grandparents, and are eager to build community and have a meaningful Jewish life that’s not dependent on institutions, even if they may gravitate that direction over time. Limmud can be a useful non-institutional, non-denominational platform for building relationships, providing a space to cultivate this intentionality, and exchanging practical ideas.
- Lead with value. This specific track of content made it easy to market Limmud Seattle to a whole different demographic of our community, and was a win-win for local organizations such as early childhood programs to share with their families.
- Listen and learn. The conversations in the room were incredibly insightful and we learned a tremendous amount about the practical needs and real emotional struggles of those in the room.
- Who came? Two perhaps surprising demographics were strongly represented: Couples who are pregnant and thinking really proactively about their shared Jewish life, and women who were not raised as Jews but will be leading Jewish families (have a Jewish partner or converted themselves earlier in life). This second demographic especially speaks to a niche audience who is clearly hungry for content, connection and support.
- Grandparents, grandparents, grandparents. This overflowing session was largely populated by people already at Limmud who are seeking to have a positive Jewish influence on their kids and grandkids amidst a myriad of complexities ranging from living 3000 miles away to navigating in-laws and much more. This group articulated how they are struggling to even identify what their goals are (on behalf of their family, as well as the Jewish people), and then how to practically work towards those goals.
- To really build community, design for social. In addition to the sessions, we also created interactive installations to help people connect all year long outside of Limmud. Over 130 people (far exceeding our expectations, over 20% of total participants) signed up to connect in their neighborhoods and around shared interests. In a city with so many newcomers, Limmud can be a point of connection and help those who seeking to find their people.
“With our first kid on the way, it’s exciting but also daunting,” said Jason Pickar, a first time Limmudnik and soon-to-be dad. “Limmud let us learn from parents who are far more experienced than we are … and brought us closer to a community of people who are opening their arms and welcoming us into the fold. Things are less scary when you can actually see and feel that community support.” “It definitely sparked some important conversations about our goals as a Jewish family in the days that followed,” his wife Sarah added.
This intentionally designed parenting track was a great fit for Seattle, providing value to young families looking for inspiration and connection, attracting a new demographic to Limmud, and leveraging a community-wide platform to enrich our community as a whole in new and meaningful ways. While Seattle was a ripe testing ground for such a concept, the Pacific Northwest is not entirely unique, and we hope to learn from more such experiments in other communities too.
Lisa Colton is the Founder and President of Darim Consulting and Darim Online, and is a Limmud Seattle volunteer.