By Mark Horowitz and Dasee Berkowitz
There are few Jewish organizations today that don’t fret about changing demographics and lack of engagement among younger Jews. Data is gloomy as organizations leak members and struggle to find new ones. Busy families with small children are hard to get through the door, much less keep in the building for a program or service.
So, what if you could share with these families the wonderful learning of our tradition as they come through a gateway they actually seek? What if we could turn early childhood education into a path for parents to connect with and to Jewish learning and wisdom?
That is just what directors of early childhood education programs from five different JCCs are hoping to do through a new program, “Becoming a Soulful Parent.” In the fall, representatives from our Sheva Center Lab communities—schools that model excellence in early childhood education for other JCCs— came together at JCC Association of North America’s New York offices to participate in a novel partnership with Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education, to learn about implementing a program at their JCCs that assist participants in connecting with traditional Jewish wisdom.
The idea is to empower parents to listen to their own intuitive wisdom in a market crowded with parenting advice, blogs, books and experts. In our instant, social-media saturated culture, parents are always finding ways that they, and their children, do not measure up. Even when parents guard against the bombardment of these messages, they are so persistent that few can escape their effect.
We know that there is a lot of anxiety around parenting. Few parents have a chance to explore this radically new role that bringing a child into the world has thrust them into. Ayeka sessions give them a chance to tap into a more than 3,000 -year-old tradition. They learn to slow down and reflect on their identity as parents as they explore how Jewish wisdom can anchor, and shed light on, the deeper questions that parents ask themselves.
And what better way to begin outreach to parents than through Jewish Community Centers? JCCs are all about creating connections and building community. Ayeka immediately saw value in partnering with JCC Association to access their JCCs, which reach a broad swath of parents with young children through the 125 Jewish early childhood education programs across North America.
Ayeka, founded by leading Jewish educator, Aryeh Ben David, in Israel in 2006, means “Where are you?” and it is the shortest—and first—question that appears in the Torah. Ayeka seeks to entwine Jewish learning and wisdom into our everyday lives, and has developed several tracks. In 2015, it created the parenting track as a direct outgrowth of one it developed for educators. We realized that educators in the classroom not only need to ask the question, “Where are you,” as they are teaching Judaism’s life-changing texts, but that parents needed to ask this question, as well.
But, of course, before we could offer this to parents at JCCs, we needed to see how this would work among the educators who would be responsible for facilitating the program. The educators who trained at JCC Association represented early childhood programs at the Aaron Family JCC in Dallas, Texas; the Bender JCC in Rockville, Maryland; JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains; Mandel JCC of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Florida; and the Staenberg-Loup Jewish Community Center in Denver, Colorado.
The educators themselves had not really taken the time to answer that call to listen to their “higher selves.” Within the framework of Ayeka, they felt that they had permission to do so.
Since then, the early childhood program at the Mandel JCC has successfully offered its first Ayeka course to its school families. An intimate group of eight parents—four couples— met for six weeks, using Jewish texts to wrestle with such questions as: How can I deeply appreciate my child/ren all the time (even when they are driving me crazy)?; How can I appreciate my partner’s different parenting style?; How can I appreciate my own qualities as a parent and know that I am the parent my child needs?
“’Becoming a Soulful Parent’ an incredible experience that taught us greatly about being attuned to ourselves, our values and reminded us of the importance of partnering on the journey of parenting,” says Miryam Buchler, a mentor teacher at the Mandel JCC, Palm Beach Gardens, the first JCC to fully implement the Ayeka program. “As facilitators, it was gratifying to witness couples talking among themselves about relevant and meaningful topics such as setting priorities, finding qualities within themselves, within their partners and within their children. Understanding that we, as parents, are in a ‘state of becoming’ was an opportunity to validate our feelings and to approach the daily task of parenting in a new light.”
Our goal is to help cultivate an appreciation for Jewish wisdom without making assumptions or judgements regarding participants’ personal beliefs or observances, and the reception was overwhelmingly positive. “It reminded me that there are many ways to parent, and I understand my spouse’s methods better,” said one participant. Another offered, “I feel more confident in my abilities and opinions as a result. … Overall, my outlook is more positive and hopeful. It is a comfort to know I have all the tools I need to be a good parent.”
This fall, we will offer the next set of curricula for the Becoming a Soulful Parent program— Ayeka 2.0 for other JCCs. It is a new, effective way to engage families with young children by tapping into this stage in life with a cutting-edge program that can eventually be rolled out to the rest of the JCC field.
After Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge, God asks, “Ayeka.” They are at the beginning—Bereshit, the first book of the Torah—of their, and our, journey. As parents, lost in our daily routines, we often forget to ask ourselves where we are—in relation to our children, our own journey and life’s bigger questions. Ayeka, hopes not only to ask “where are you?” of them, but also to help parents answer that question with confidence.
Mark Horowitz is a JCC Association vice president and director of the Sheva Center for Innovation in Early Childhood Jewish Education & Engagement; Dasee Berkowitz is director, of Ayeka’s Becoming a Soulful Parent program.