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.