To Teach is to Unlearn: Helping the Next Generation Become Peaceful Parents

By Dr. Jane Sherwin Shapiro

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

When your children grow up to be upstanding, kind, and lovely people, it is easy to think of yourself as having been a successful Jewish parent. And you may also come to believe that you have some expertise on family life, especially Jewish family life. As an educator, you may find that the songs that need singing, the programs that need to be created, and even what a Jewish family looks like may all be refracted through your own perception of how it was when you were raising your own children, and what you thought was successful. This is heightened when you are a Jewish educator serving the community.

But just as Moses discovers as he led one generation and then another through the wilderness, Jewish family life is continually evolving. Jewish families today are made up of a far more extensive array of partners, ethnicities, races and backgrounds than they were in years past. And yet, all are still striving to raise children under a tent of Jewish values and traditions.

What’s more, there is no longer a workday or a work week. There is only a twenty-four hour cycle that keeps on going. The workplace imposes more demands upon parents’ time. Technology has become the central clearing place to vet car seats, cry when your baby is not sleeping, time how long you have been pumping, arrange a carpool, struggle, and even celebrate. It has removed a personal dimension of feelings like laughing and crying, and the sharing of life wisdom, that used to occur in the presence of living, breathing, loved ones. They can replace human connection only to a point. Devices that ping and entertain and mesmerize make brains of all ages crazed.

In addition to the endless quest to curate social media images of a perfect family, the burden upon Jewish parents to find resources to build a cool Jewish life exists too. The Judaism you carry forth has to be Judaism that you have created craftily like a Pinterest page. And what if I am not sure what to do? I may know that Judaism is full of wisdom and values that can guide both me and my children to be better human beings, but where is that wisdom to be found? How do I adapt the Torah to issues like bullying, anxiety, and injustice?

For an educator awareness of these profound changes can come from reading blogs and sociological articles. But a deeper and more lasting impression can occur when as an educator you also arrive at the life stage I call ‘Bubbiehood’ and meet your childrens’ children. Becoming a grandparent means witnessing the genesis of a new Jewish family right before your eyes. The grandchildren, of course, are perfect from the very start, and so it is easy to set your sights instead on the “parenting styles” of the next generation, and expend lots of energy comparing and contrasting how you managed to accomplish what you did. But beware of how retrospective nostalgia can keep close company with judgment.

Consider this twenty-first century “conversation” between a young Mother and her Mother in Law (MIL) that took place in a series of texts.

Daughter in Law: “It’s almost as if the words ‘they were such good boys for me all day” transforms my children into shrieking banshees. Why is that?”

MIL to Daughter in Law: “I think they just miss you a lot during the day… Which is a really good thing….”

DIL to MIL: “But it also makes me feel guilty… I know the developmental reason for it… but it’s hard for me to cope when I’ve had a full day at work too. Oh well…not much I can do about it at this point.”

What is this mother saying about what her needs? And how can we, as parents and grandparents, but also as Jewish educators, respond to her in a way that shows a genuine attention to and understanding of the challenges she faces, and how those challenges differ from the world where we raised our own children, years ago?

First of all, the exchange between MIL and DIL highlights the amount of stress that is seen as “normal” in daily family life. Second, it indicates how much being present, having time, and feeling divided, are central concerns. Before having any ability to bring the next generation of children into an inspired Jewish life, a parent needs to feel that they have some agency and ability to create that sacred space. Jewish family life today needs moments of hope.

As a mother and Bubbie and Mother in Law and Jewish educator today I want to state clearly that I have no idea what the parents of today are up against. So, too, as a Jewish educator, we must account for what we don’t know. Before any ideation of program then, Jewish educators of today might want to pause, set aside their own notions on “how to parent” and most of all, sit still and listen for an empathic call. Young parents need us to at least try and feel how they feel before we attempt to reach out and help them rear their children. They need our respect.

In response to that call, and through a grant from The Covenant Foundation, Orot: Center for New Jewish Learning is developing the Peaceful Parent project to be piloted in Chicago in the fall of 2019. Empathy for young parents and a deep understanding of how the Jewish family today is inherently different from those that came before, is at the heart of this work. Cohorts of 10-12 parents of young children will gather for 8 weeks to study Jewish texts in combination with mindfulness practices which will include meditation, nature, art and music with a teacher trained to help as these parents form a supportive, micro, spiritual and learning community.

These sessions are designed to allow parents to cultivate their own abilities to pause, find compassion and center themselves physically and spiritually in love and fortitude, so they are then able to be more present to their children in ways that make sense for them. We do not want parents to feel resigned to guilt. There is “something they can do about it,” if we hold them up in love, provide the nurturance of a micro-community of parents and a teacher who has set aside everything they once thought they knew about parenting and families today, in order to support this generation with hithadshut (renewed sensibility) and menuchat nefesh (equanimity of spirit).

In this way, we will together forge a new path toward supporting the Jewish parents who are doing the holy work of raising confident and happy Jewish children in the 21st century, and beyond.

Dr. Jane Sherwin Shapiro is one of the founders of Orot: Center for New Jewish Learning. She has been a teacher, mentor, coach, and consultant in the areas of adult Jewish learning and educational vision for many years. She served as Associate Director of the Florence Melton School and has authored a variety of curricula used by national organizations. She is passionate about helping her students connect Jewish wisdom to their lives in vibrant and meaningful ways. She has a degree from Princeton University in Jewish Studies and completed her doctorate in 2016 at the Davidson School of JTS. In 2017 she was honored to be a Covenant Award recipient. Most recently, Jane’s ELI Talk, The Torah of Bubbiehood, explores universal wisdom that can change everyday life.