Prioritizing Jewish Life from the Very Beginning

By Jennifer Goldsmith

In Jewish education, we always aspire to know what the parents of our learners are thinking: what they’re passionate about, how they like to prioritize their time and attention, their hopes and dreams for their children. Using parents’ feedback as a guide, institutions, particularly congregational learning settings, can adjust their educational programs to meet these expectations, balancing the desires of the parents with the Judaica knowledge they believe their children should be exposed to. In order to be able to strike that balance, we need to know what our parents are thinking. And in order to know that, we need to ask them.

Earlier this year, through a grant from Synergy: UJA-Federation and Synagogues Together, Dr. Danna Rose Livstone on behalf of The Jewish Education Project explored how and why parents make the decisions they do around their child’s Jewish education. We examined parent attitudes at two key moments of transition – the move from early childhood into the elementary years and the transition from middle school into high school. Despite the limited sample, we still learned a lot about the way our parents think. This information can help communities and congregations think about how to interact with, program for, and recruit families.

While the 2013 Pew report (“A Portrait of Jewish Americans”) clearly points to declining interest and affiliation in synagogue life, our interviews with parents in New York showed that across the board, parents of different denominations still share a common pressure to follow an “expected path” for educating their children.

Wherever this expectation comes from – be it grandparents or perceived communal norms – congregations ought to leverage this latent feeling, but with a gentle approach that taps into another expectation parents hold deeply: that a congregation should be a place that offers a warm sense of home and belonging. As one New York City mom in our research explained, once her family had a center for their Jewish lives, they wanted to stay there. She felt NYC communities are transitory, and she wanted her family to belong somewhere.

Another key finding from this research is that congregations/communal organizations need to create the best possible experience for families, recognizing that engaging the first child is often an entry point for the second. If it was good, they often choose to repeat it with the next child. If their experience was poor, they will seek out alternative options elsewhere.

For Jewish educators who see the importance in congregational life, we should aspire to keep parents engaged in our institutions in the long term, offering a sense of a shared journey for both the parents and the children that feels like a single, “continuous engagement” throughout their life. Ultimately, parents also want their children to feel a sense of community, belonging and excitement about Jewish life that starts early and has enough staying power to inform their life choices as they grow into independent decision-makers – and hopefully, someday, grow up to make these choices for their own families.

To learn more about this research, join The Jewish Education Project’s webinar with researcher Dr. Danna Rose Livstone on Tuesday, December 20 10:00 a.m.-11:00 a.m. EST.

Rabbi Jennifer Goldsmith is the Managing Director, Congregational Learning for The Jewish Education Project. She holds rabbinic ordination, MA in Hebrew Literature and MA in Religious Education from Hebrew Union College  Jewish Institute of Religion.

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  • Thank you for taking the time to write and share this article. If I am understanding correctly, it argues for a consumer-based approach to Jewish education; that is, discover what the consumer wants and try to provide it (in this case “balancing the desires of the parents with the Judaica knowledge they believe their children should be exposed to.” )—-though I confess to not understanding where the balance is in this statement—. The drawback to this approach is that many parents have no idea what Judaica knowledge their children need. But, I think the fly in the ointment here is the notion that Jewish education is expected to have a lasting effect into adulthood. Any discussion of this goal without the recognition that it cannot be achieved alone, without the full commitment of parents and a supportive Jewish family life, is naive (in my opinion) and blind to the decades of failed effort to “improve Jewish education” without “improving the Jewish home.” Even the success of day schools appears to be more related to the Jewish home environment than to the day school education itself.

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