When cheder ends: Family engagement and the future of synagogue-based education

Why do we want our children to continue to learn about Judaism, – why should this ancient religion from a far off place matter to them? Why should it matter to their parents? And if it does matter, what are the most effective ways for educators to engage families in learning about their religion? These are important questions that need answering if we want our students to feel connected to, and to hold some level of ownership over their Jewish identity.

The reality is that a significant proportion of children who attend Synagogue-based programmes come in feeling little or no connection to Judaism. As such, Jewish educators often need to devote significant amounts of time ‘convincing’ young people that Judaism is worth a look-in before they can begin any formal type of study. This is especially true of children who have decided, been encouraged or pushed, to engage with Judaism towards the end of their primary school education (i.e. ages 9+).

Rabbi David Lister points out that there are many families for whom cheder is the sole or primary source of their child’s engagement with Judaism. This means that synagogue-based educators, “can no longer take it for granted that their students are motivated to explore and engage with their Jewish heritage.” Stacey Palevsky argues that, “Many Jewish parents —  let down by their own congregational education — are not knowledgeable enough to teach their children even the most basic Jewish ideas, rituals and stories. And so, what was intended as a supplemental tool has in many cases become the primary source of Jewish education: once- or twice-weekly two-hour classes imparting concepts that often are not reinforced at home.” For Hebrew learning – or indeed any learning –  to be successful we need to foster a Jewish learning that originates in the home, not the synagogue.

In my various roles running educational programming, I have noticed that many children spend more time in the synagogue than their parents. As Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz puts it in his article “Hebrew School: A Failed Experiment”, we need to “make Jewish learning experiential and include the whole family. For supplemental [- though I prefer the term complementary -] Jewish education to work the parents must also be bought in.” For Yanklowitz families must be “empowered to make life choices” and this means giving them ownership of their Jewish learning, not educating their children for them. When this does not happen, families – often unknowingly encouraged by the shul – develop the wrong expectations as to the aims and outcomes of these programmes concluding for example that Hebrew fluency is a likely outcome. One synagogue that clearly understands the importance of managing parents expectations states on their website that;

Ideally, this should say that the Religion School will train a child in the reading of the Hebrew language so that s/he can be able to read from the Torah for a bar-/bat-mitzvah ceremony. Unfortunately, with the best will in the world, this is unlikely to be the case. Hebrew is a difficult language to learn in the best of circumstances; when it is being taught for 50 minutes a week for 36 weeks of the year (assuming 100% attendance at Religion School – a rare phenomenon) it is virtually impossible.

This type of upfront honesty from synagogues effectively manages family’s expectations of our programmes and will only help foster longer lasting, positive relationships between themselves and their members. However, synagogues must then create programmes that support learning outside of the synagogue walls. Judaism needs to be experienced in many spaces and at many times. Parents need to see synagogue-based programmes as supplementary to other learning experiences and not the primary source of Jewish engagement. Quite a lot of families that I interact with tell me that they want to provide their children with meaningful Jewish experiences outside of the Synagogue but feel unable or not confident enough to do so.

As parents are the first and most enduring educators we must seek to work in close partnership with them to deliver the best programme possible. You might want to consider some of the following engagement opportunities:

  • Run parallel learning sessions for parents and carers that allow them to continue to develop their own relationship with Judaism. These should take place at the same time as their children are enjoying their own learning experiences. (e.g. During Cheder or Bar or Bat Mitzvah classes).
  • Put together a Parent’s Group that comprises of representatives from each school year. They will act as a link between teachers, synagogue staff and other parents within the year group and can often help up with small tasks as well as hosting small fundraising or social events.
  • Organise home-based Jewish experiences and learning opportunities. These could be festival-focused events that bring together small groups of families in a members home. For example, a Chanukiah lighting and doughut eating evening for all families with children in school years 5 and 6.
  • Send a short Weekly Update via email that lets parents know what their child is learning as well as to inform them of special mornings or trips. You can provide links to your website which contain further information and resources to aid learning at home.
  • Run a number of events throughout the year where parents are invited to meet your synagogue’s education team.
  • Friday night dinners – These could take place after Friday night services either in your synagogue or at the home of a member family. Pot luck style often works best for these types of meals.
  • Encourage parents (or tell them it’s compulsory!) to accompany their children to at least 2 Shabbat prayer services a term.
  • Have Clergy and education professionals meet regularly with families. This valuable face-to-face time helps relationship building and shows parents that you are personally invested in their family. At the beginning of the year have each of your educators phone round the families of the children who will be in their class and introduce themselves.

A successful synagogue-based programme will help create a framework onto which families can create new Jewish experiences together outside the shul. It is to be expected that not all families will make use of this framework but a strong programme must be able to support those who wish to take their learning to the next level. As educators we should strive to instil students with a passion for Judaism that sees them and their families pursuing learning in other contexts. Synagogue-based youth programmes can be an excellent opportunity for families to re engage with their Judaism and in many ways these programmes are as much for parents as for children. Synagogues must work hard to win parents over to this way of thinking, providing multiple engagement and learning opportunities that will meet the unique needs of different families.

Disney’s Aladdin is the ultimate Passover movie!

For almost 100 years Hollywood has attempted to capture the Passover story on film: The Ten Commandments (1923 and 1956), The Prince of Egypt (1998) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) to name a few. Film producers have spent millions of dollars recreating the dramatic scale and spectacle of the Israelite journey out of Egypt, through the Sea of Reeds and into the wilderness. (Charlton Heston looks even more spectacular as Moses when viewed in 3D!).

There is one film, not a typical ‘Passover movie,’ whose themes go right to the heart of the Israelite journey; Disney’s Aladdin (1992). Set in the fictional city of Agrabah, at first glance this story of princesses, evil sorcerers and magical genies appears far removed from our own story.

However, the Israelites and the entire cast of Aladdin share a longing for one thing above all else; freedom. Aladdin himself longs to be free from poverty, Princess Jasmine wants freedom to choose who to marry, Jafar and Iago want to be free from the Sultan’s rule and Genie ‘wishes’ he was free to be his own master. As the story of Aladdin illustrates, freedom is a shared ideal but the form of an individual’s bondage as well as the motivation that encourages one to seek freedom can differ dramatically.

The human catalyst for the Israelite journey from slavery to freedom is Moses. The first event of Moses’ adult life that is described in the Torah tells how he, disgusted at the brutality of the Egyptians, comes to the defence of an Israelite who is in the middle of being beaten by a taskmaster. Moses (at least at this point in the narrative) does not seek his own freedom but that of those around him. His first ‘grownup’ act is to try and reduce the suffering of those around him who are too weak to pursue liberty for themselves. Like Moses, Aladdin also desires freedom for others as demonstrated when he promises to use his third and final wish to set the Genie free. However, Aladdin’s own desires lead him to hesitate in granting this wish and this action becomes the catalyst for much of the tragedy that takes place later on in the story.

When Moses sees suffering around him his first instinct is to intervene, irrelevant of the consequences of these actions on his own liberties. In fact, it is this early action that leads to Moses own liberation later on in the Torah narrative. As central characters in our own journeys to freedom we must remember that by working to secure the freedom of others we are in fact working to guarantee our own freedom.

This article originally appeared as Alyth Synagogue’s ‘Thought for the Week’.

‘If you could add a new item to the seder plate what would it be?’

If I were to add an item to the seder plate it would be a pocket diary. The traditional seder plate helps us to tell a sensory-story of Israelite liberation out of bondage in Egypt. This was not only a physical enslavement but a spiritual one as well. Today we enjoy many different types of freedom but we must also be aware that ‘freedom’ itself can be a barrier to enjoying the very rights for which the Israelites so desperately struggled. The 21st century, perhaps more than any other point in history, is a moment where we are afforded tremendous choice and control over our personal, professional and recreational pursuits.  The difficulty in deciding what to do and when to do it is no longer a struggle based on limitations but on the immense control we have over our lives. I feel fortunate to have the freedom to make decisions about how I use my time based on my own needs, wants and desires.  A pocket diary can act as a reminder that with the freedom to choose which tasks fill our calendars comes a responsibility to use our time wisely. This means making decisions that bring us closer to our fellow beings and empower us to maintain the spiritual freedom that the Israelites won so long ago.

Originally published in the Jewish News, ‘Progressive Jews page’s 2 voices feature’

This is ‘Spirituality’!

“Spirituality” is perhaps one of the most difficult concepts to define, especially in our post-modern, materialistic obsessed culture. Spirituality is not about “the mystical” as suggested in popular Kabbalah and nor is it about retreat and isolation as some new-age practices proclaim.

At its core, spirituality is about connection. In its many manifestations a spiritual person is one who is connected to their surroundings and also, importantly, to themselves.

True connectedness really relies on a sense of interdependence; the understanding that we are dependent on the people and things that we connect to and in turn, those people and things are dependent on us. The more genuine connections we make to our surroundings the more spiritual we become.

This concept of connectedness is particularly difficult for those of us who have grown up in a contemporary western culture that holds notions of independence and individuality as such praiseworthy values.

Embracing a sense of dependency might sound difficult and even a little counterintuitive but a lot of good can come from the simple realisation that the people around us are much more then social toys to be interacted with when we feel like it. People need to be seen as sources of nourishment that are essential to our survival! Community is actually rooted in dependence on others: a mutual dependence where people and environment rely in some way on the other for survival and vice versa.

Powerful and long lasting relationships happen when one set of unique attributes are joined together with another set of unique attributes, in the hope of fulfilling a shared goal. When we can give to the needs of others and fulfill our own needs from what others have to offer, do we attain a sense of community. This state of mind is the true meaning of spirituality.

So how do we go about achieving a level of spirituality in today’s urbanised and often isolating environment?

Community is about belonging to a group of people who share similar life goals and ambitions. Yes, people can and should differ on the exact details and approach, but ultimately a community works together to build a shared vision. Why not embark on a project with some of your friends? Sit together over a drink and discuss your passions, searching for overlapping interests. The project can be anything you like as long as it grips all of you involved and has an identifiable goal that you can all agree to work towards. Whatever you choose it should be something that you all care deeply about. Next, go round to your friends and talk about the unique skills each of you can contribute to achieve to make the project a success. No single person should have all the attributes needed to successfully complete the project (if one of you does you need to find a more challenging project!) Assign roles to each person based on their unique skills and get to work on your project! This model may sound simplistic but it is very powerful! Here, every member of the group is important and essential if the goal of the project is to be achieved. Each individual has a commitment, not just to the group as a whole, but to each person as an individual. The stronger each person’s belief in the end goal the stronger the sense of community between the group. This is a very powerful connection.

Spirituality is not something one can ultimately experience in isolation. Spirituality is the practice of connecting to our surroundings and is as much a physical experience as it is a state of mind. Perhaps even more so… Conversation and group gatherings may be part of building a community but it is only when we rely on those around us and allow them to rely on us that community is elevated to its true spiritual form.

Originally published on cartoonkippah.com

The trouble with pink

Whilst browsing the children’s section of a popular chain of bookshops, two twin anthologies caught my eye. The first was bound in a blue cover and featured an illustration of a young boy on horseback galloping across a snowy wilderness. The publisher’s note on the back describes the volume’s collection of thrilling action and adventure stories. This book, titled The Usborne Illustrated Classics for Boys, was sitting directly next to it’s sister publication: The Usborne Illustrated Stories for Girls. In contrast to its male-targeted counterpart, the dust-jacket description of Classics for Girls promises, “fourteen fantastic tales of pretty princesses, determined fairies, brave dolls and clever mermaids.” The front cover is framed by the branches of a bright, sparkling tree and a castle with heart shape door at the centre. All of which are, of course, awash in pink.

pinkbluebook

From the moment I found out my wife and I were having a daughter, I knew pink was going to be a problem. In one sense colours are meaningless and have no inherent properties, other than what we apply to them. The graphic novelist Alan Moore has pointed out that “words offer the means to meaning”, and in much the same way so do colours. It is our use of colours that gives them meaning and it is how we use them to exclude, predefine and label our children, often before they have had a chance to explore their world, that is a real cause for concern.

A stroll through any toy shop reveals that we have clearly defined paths for our boys and girls. For girls, brightly packaged pink toys hold within them the keys to domestic life whilst they are also peppered with products relating to cosmetic beauty. In this world, girls are devoted to the duties of the home, all the while in constant pursuit of physical perfection. A child surrounded by these types of toys may logically conclude that their place in adult life is in the home and that, no matter where they are, they must look good! The strong association between pink and these types of toys give the colour its particular meaning. And, that meaning is to constrain girls within certain sanctioned roles and to contain them within prescribed standards of beauty.

It’s not just our girls who suffer. Our boys are also limited by toy manufacturer’s visioning of gender-appropriate play. In the toy market, boys are essentially forbidden from exploring (and perhaps enjoying) anything that relates to home life. Toys relating to family relationships, food preparation and the arts are all but absent from the boys’ section. From this absence, boys can only draw one conclusion: these things are a woman’s domain.

What all this means is that all our children, whether boy or girl, are being told to fulfil their potential in only a very limited range of roles. As a result we all lose out.

Being a homemaker is a very valid role but that girls need to realise that it is but one of many options for the modern woman, whilst boys need to know that running a home can be a valid role for them too. Colours are just a small part of the gender machine, but they are easy to focus on, blatant in the gendering project for which they are intended. Of course, pink can actually be a great colour: my guilty pleasure is pink candy floss. Yet, the fact that it has become the only colour to represent girlhood and the possibilities it entails is a real issue. When we surround our girls in pink we are saying that we accept and are willing to reinforce the predetermined, social normative place of women in our society. We are saying this to our friends, to ourselves and ultimately to our children. Personally, I would like my daughter to hear something different.

Vayechi: Many blessings to many people

In this week’s Torah portion Jacob is very old – 147 years! – and lying on his death bed. Gathered around him are his children and grandchildren, to each of whom he offers a personal blessing. It is here in Genesis (Bereshit) that the Friday night tradition to bless ones sons in the name of Joseph’s children Ephraim and Manasseh originates.

For the past three months we have introduced a new custom into our Shabbat routine; Each week Robin (my wife) and I place our hands on our daughter’s head and recite a short blessing. This intimate moment allows us to reflect on our hopes and aspirations for her as she grows up and develops into an independent person.

Of course, one does not need to wait until they are dying or have a child to offer blessings and they need not be so formally delivered. In fact, we probably ‘bless’ a lot more than we might think. Each time we offer our approval or good wishes to a friend or offer luck or hope to a family member we are indeed offering a blessing.

The final moments of Jacob’s life were packed with many blessings to many people. He wanted to use his last breath to offer praise, encouragement and guidance to those he cared about most. This is something that we should emulate at all stages of our lives even if our blessings are as simple as adding a few positive words or actions into our daily routine.

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This article originally appeared as Alyth Synagogue’s ‘Thought for the Week’.

New parenthood: a dad’s-eye view

There are many dedicated blogs and posts about becoming a parent for the first time. Almost all of these are written by mums for expectant mums and I asked myself, “Why aren’t first-time dads rushing online to share their thoughts on newfound fatherhood?! Well, as a ‘gushing’ new father I thought I would share my experience of the last two months.

Aviva Clara (Chaya) was born on the 5th of September 2013, a particularly special day as she shared her entrance into the world with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

I was always looking forward to the labour and birth of our baby. I expected it to be a unique bonding experience, primarily between my wife (Robin) and I, but also with our baby. Prior to the birth, people often asked Robin if she was feeling nervous about labour. Me, I felt quite calm with my only concern being for Robin and baby’s welfare (in that order). I felt confident in my wife’s ability to deliver the baby and knew that, even if there were complications, the likelihood was that our baby would be born safe and sound. The birth went smoothly and I was largely surprised at how quick the ‘final push’ was, imagining that it would take much longer. Robin gave birth on a birthing stool – a sort of chair with no bottom – whilst I sat behind her and she leaned back into me for support. This intimate embrace allowed us to share the first view of our daughter together (and I was able to cut the umbilical cord).

My first feelings were pure joy. I felt overwhelmed with emotion and, though I did not cry, I could feel my face buzzing with excitement. Feeling Robin relax back into my body as she held Aviva lose was a very powerful moment and I will probably remember that embrace for the rest of my life. Holding my daughter for the first time was incredible! In my adult life I had spent little time around young children, let alone newborn babies, yet I felt instantly comfortable. I am naturally quite a confident person and was not worried about the way I handled Aviva. Yes, she was delicate but she had managed to survive the upheaval of birth so I was certain that my grip wouldn’t harm her.

The first six weeks were a total readjustment for Robin and I as we got used to sharing our lives (and home) with an additional person. A newborn is quite a demanding tenant and both of us had to contend with putting her needs before our own. Robin was particularly tied to Aviva during this early stage as she was breastfeeding exclusively. Prior to having a baby I often remarked at how amazing a bonding experience breastfeeding must be for mother and child and how we, aka dads, suffered from not being able to partake in this activity. Post-baby I still believe we men miss out on this special bonding time, however I also realise that breastfeeding can be very challenging. Assuming the mother has no problems with latching, mastitis – google it :-) – and blocked ducts the demanding routine that breastfeeding requires is enough to make anyone lose their sanity. Robin did a phenomenal job nursing our baby but the round-the-clock, always-ready-to-feed lifestyle was not one I envied. In fact, my respect for Robin increased dramatically during these first weeks as I realised just how taxing being the mother of a newborn really is! Not only are their bodies recovering from the birth itself, they are also denied the precious sleep needed to allow their bodies to heal quickly.

This time was challenging on both for us in different ways: Robin was getting used to the new demands on her body and I was getting used to supporting her as well as looking after Aviva in other, non-feeding ways. (In particular, this meant changing lots of dirty nappies but luckily breastmilk poo does not smell too bad.)

People had told us that things would get easier at around the six week mark and this largely proved to be true. Aviva felt calmer, perhaps more familiar with her world outside of the womb. (We even got a couple of smiles around this time). Robin relaxed as we began to share the responsibility of feeding via the introduction of a bottle feed. I also felt content seeing the positive change in Robin as she regained control over her body, and how seamlessly Aviva adapted to the changes in her feed.

Aviva is just over two months now and things continue to run a little smoother each day. I love being a dad and feel fortunate to have such a sweet-natured daughter; she smiles often and rarely cries for very long. Fatherhood has been a tremendous experience and for the first time I feel like I begin to understand the term ‘unconditional love’. Having Aviva has meant that I have grown in my relationship, not only with her, but with my wife, family and friends, too.  For any man who is considering whether or not to become a father, it is an adventure I highly recommend.