by H. Glenn Rosenkrantz
Fourth-grade students at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, NY recently gathered for one of a series of Havdalah programs, splitting into groups and discussing the blessings and ritual objects and even making some of their own.
Not particularly unusual on its face. But what made it more notable was the fact that it occurred beyond the synagogue walls, in someone’s home, and most importantly, that parents participated as well.
“We try to give parents the knowledge too, so that they can be educated,” said Lisa Schwartz, Principal of the religious school at Temple Israel Center. “We are making Jewish education intergenerational, reinforcing it beyond the classroom, and strengthening the family Jewishly. This is very empowering, and critical for Jewish community and continuity.”
That, in fact, is the opportunity and challenge of those who call themselves Jewish family educators, a niche within Jewish education and one that is re-emerging on communal and philanthropic agendas as the Jewish educational landscape changes and the family is identified by many as a new frontier for engagement.
“The single greatest influence on Jewish identity development is the family,” said Dr. Ron Wolfson, Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University, who has written extensively on Jewish family education issues and practices. “The challenge of the new century for Jewish education is to go beyond programming and build relationships with families, however they are constructed. Done right, the magnifying effect is sensational.”
The field itself can be hard to define, beyond its targeting of families as units to be educated as a whole, where parents, grandparents, siblings and children are being collectively engaged, and each is reinforcing lessons, knowledge and perspectives to create an organic whole.
“We need to be moving beyond the point where parents are just dropping off their children at Hebrew school at 4 pm and picking them up again at 6 pm,” said Ronit Razinovsky, Education Director at Shaarei Tikvah, a conservative synagogue in Scarsdale, NY. “This is a way to build strong Jewish families, and strong Jewish communities.”
As a recognized field, Jewish family education has had its fits and starts. It is quite strong in some communities, such as Detroit, which boasts a consortium of Jewish family educators within the Jewish Experiences for Families initiative of the federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education.
But others still lack any formal communal address for programming and educator support.
A new national structure for the field has emerged in recent months, however, with big backing from such philanthropic giants as The Covenant Foundation and The Mandell and Madeleine Berman Foundation, which identify Jewish education as key to community growth and continuity.
Jewish family educators from throughout the Midwest and Northeast gathered late last summer to launch Shevet: Jewish Family Education Exchange, a direct descendant of the former Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life.
The initiative is ambitious in its scope and plans for growth, with the overriding objective being to put Jewish family education squarely on the communal agenda, and to equip educators with the strategies, tools and relationships to grow and succeed.
Shevet is using social media tools, including a virtual community of practice that already boasts nearly 100 active users, to keep Jewish family educators connected and enable them to share resources, best practices and tactics. Additional conferences are being planned – both stand-alone and in conjunction with other Jewish organizational gatherings – and a national curriculum is also being designed.
“Jewish family education is back,” said Wolfson, one of a group of faculty members dedicated to Shevet programming. “This is the rebirth of a movement. With new energy and funding, we are reenergized to create this national effort to strengthen the field of Jewish family education and give professionals skills and program ideas that they need to do the job.”
Shevet funders agreed that the new initiative is a powerful boost to the field and to the Jewish community.
“It’s much easier for people to say that they don’t care rather than to admit that they don’t know,” said Harlene Winnick Appelman, Executive Director of The Covenant Foundation. “Family education has always turned knowing into caring and empowered parents to begin with their own competencies and apply them to Jewish life. Jewish family education is about strengthening all three: Jewish, family and education.”
Others observed that Shevet has the potential to help move the field beyond current approaches and toward new ways of thinking and building models that give parents an empowered role and central voice in Jewish educational settings.
“Doing Jewish education without family involvement is almost thoughtless,” said Dr. Jonathan Woocher, Chief Ideas Officer and Director of the Lippman Kanfer Institute at JESNA. “It ignores a central dimension of the educational process. So we must examine how to make families full partners in the educational process. My hope is that Shevet will move that conversation forward.”
Lisa Farber Miller, Senior Program Officer at Rose Community Foundation in Denver – which has a number of initiatives designed to engage Jewish families – agreed, saying that new models are necessary as family dynamics change.
“Parents under 40 want to be co-creators of value and meaning,” she said. “They represent a do-it-yourself generation. Jewish family educators can be relevant and important assets for them. Shevet has a role to play in this changing landscape.”
When the inaugural group of Jewish family educators gathered for their first conference, much of the talk was about such big ideas, but also about the day-to- day challenges, such as how to advocate for more funding at their institutions, how to obtain dedicated staff, and how to move the vision of Jewish family education forward among lay and professional decision makers.
“It takes time to sell that vision and to make it a reality,” said Gail Greenberg, interim Education Director at Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield, MI. “But by altering the conversation at the local and national levels, and by creating this cohort of educators, we are moving in the right direction.”