The Crucials C’s of Family Engagement

Families learning together at JCDS. Photo credit Miriam Seidman.

By Dr. Susie Tanchel and Gavi Elkind

[This is the third article in a series about revitalizing the field of family engagement for the Jewish community, written by Covenant Foundation award recipients and grantees.]

“Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown…
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’…” – Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan likely wasn’t reflecting on the future of the Jewish day school movement in the United States when he wrote this classic song. And yet, his insight has deep implications for our work.

As part of our admissions process at JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School, we meet individually with every prospective family. While these conversations allow us a meaningful opportunity to share highlights and updates about our unique program, they really are occasions to listen and to learn. They teach us about parents’ hopes and dreams, not just for their children, but for their family’s sense of identity. These discussions also shed light on how families’ needs change from year to year, and how cultural and societal trends affect the questions families have about the role that Jewish day schools can play in helping to realize their vision.

Prominent psychotherapist Alfred Adler’s framework is a helpful typology in making sense of what prospective and current Jewish day school families have in their minds and hearts. Our families are deeply concerned that they feel connected, capable, counted, and courageous; in other words, they want us as Jewish day schools to partner closely with them in fulfilling what Adler referred to as “The Crucial C’s.”

Connected: We understand from our conversations that families seeking a Jewish day school education desperately want to feel connected: to their own identity, to their community, and to something larger than themselves. They are looking to Jewish day schools to be a nexus of connection.

In order to effectively respond to this need and truly serve the whole family, we find that the experience of school needs to extend beyond the hours of the school day and the walls of our campus. At JCDS, we offer art, Israeli dance, and Torah study classes for adults; foster ongoing partnerships between our students and our Boston community; and collaborate with local organizations to offer weekend programs for young families. We’ve learned that we need to continue expanding our range of offerings to help families cultivate this sense of belonging, both as part of a Jewish community, and the broader world.

Counted: Belonging starts when families feel like they matter. In 2019, our families experience unprecedented demands on their finite time, energy, and attention – and yet, they still want to participate in their child’s educational experience and feel like their contributions to the community matter. We want that, too! At JCDS, our respect for families’ schedule and needs pervades all aspects of school culture. We offer parent education workshops at multiple times on different days in order to ensure that families with varied schedules can participate. Our Parents’ Association has a myriad of opportunities for volunteerism at varying levels of commitment. We welcome younger siblings to be part of family meetings. Just as we strive to deeply know each child in our classes, we work to make every family feel counted in our community.

Capable: Family engagement is also about the ways in which parents partner with day schools to help us fulfill our mission and vision.

In order to fully engage families in Jewish day schools, the experience of learning and developing the requisite skills for contributing to society must be a family affair. During our Milestone events, for example, our students lead their families in text study. We welcome families to join us for celebrations of the arts, culminations of our Learning Adventures, and Jewish holidays and morning minyan. In these ways and many others, we partner with families to help co-create capable, responsible, engaged, and compassionate citizens of the world with diverse, essential capacities and skills.

Courageous: Our society today is fractured and polarized. We as Jewish day school educators, play an important role in helping to raise the leaders of tomorrow who will approach the world with humble confidence, act with integrity, and speak truth with courage.

At JCDS, we aim to support families in being courageous about their identity, curious about others’ perspectives and ways of living, and committed to contributing to community. We foster this courage in our families by encouraging them to extend beyond their comfort zone with vulnerability. We invite our parents to contribute to the dialogue around pluralism-in-practice by fostering honest, direct, and open-hearted conversations around kashrut at birthday parties, Israeli and American politics, and observance (or not) of holidays such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day. We invite our families to model courage in big ways and small acts.

As Jewish day schools in changin’ times, we understand that it is our responsibility to engage the entire family in the work of fostering meaningful connections, recognizing the unique value in each member of our community, building skills and capacities necessary to be change makers, and cultivating courage. By deepening and expanding our parent engagement efforts, we will continue to come together to ride the waves of an evolving Jewish future.

Dr. Susie Tanchel has been Head of School at JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School since 2011. She served as the Associate Head of School at Gann Academy – The New Jewish High School of Greater Boston for the prior six prior years and had taught Tanakh there for 14 years. Susie earned her doctorate from Brandeis University’s Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department. She has been an instructor in a number of pre-service education program including the DeLeT (Day School Leadership Through Teaching) program at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education and the Masters of Teaching Program in Secondary Education at Brandeis University. She was on the writing team of the JTS and the Avi Chai Foundation’s Standards and Benchmark project for the teaching of Tanakh. Susie has also taught in a variety of adult education settings including Combined Jewish Philanthropy’s Genesis Program, and Biblical Hebrew and Me’ah at Hebrew College. She is a recipient of the 2018 Covenant Award and the 2017 Hachmat Lev Award from Keshet.

Gavi Elkind is the Director of Admissions at JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School. She began her career in admissions and marketing at The Brandeis School of San Francisco. Prior to joining the JCDS community in 2016, she served in fundraising positions at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, University of California at San Francisco, and American Jewish World Service. Gavi earned her undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University, and her teaching credential and Certificate in Jewish Day School Teaching through the DeLeT (Day School Leadership Through Teaching) program at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.