Family education program. Screen capture: Jewish Museum, NY.

By Craig Parks, Barrett Harr and Betsy Stone

In December 2017, I was lucky enough to attend the Jewish Futures Conference, presented by the Jewish Education Project. The focus of this stimulating day was on civics education and the impact on democracy. I left both excited and disheartened. Disheartened at the impact that “teaching to the test” has had on complexity of thought in both youths and adults, and excited at the possibility that we might begin to turn around this trend. And discouraged that the world of supplemental Jewish education has allowed itself to be hijacked by B’nei Mitzvah and confirmation, the ultimate Jewish tests.

Fast forward. I teach in a webinar series, sponsored by the Jim Joseph Foundation, that brings together experienced experimental educators from across the Jewish world. In a class co-taught by Craig Parks, we began to think about issues of inclusion in the Jewish world. Craig introduced the concept of a Jewish IEP.

Another participant, Barrett Harr, and I both were very excited. Why don’t we have JIEPs for all students, for all learners? Shouldn’t ALL Jewish education be personalized, intentionally created by teachers and learners working in concert? Especially in supplemental schools, where we are under engaging our students and their parents?

Over the past few weeks, Barrett and I have been sharing ideas about creating individualized family education plans. It is clear to us that the family MUST be part of the child’s Jewish goal setting, both to support the child and because families need to have these kinds of conversations. Deep, thoughtful Jewish conversations create family intimacy.

Here is an outline of a class to create a Jewish Family Education Plan. It was used with a 6th grade Family Education class, but could be used with both older and younger kids, and with an Adult Ed group.

We met in pairs of parents and kids. Families were welcomed and fed (duh).

  1. We each have three names: the one given by our parents, the one given by God and the one we make for ourselves. Discussion about what these different names are.
  2. Break into unrelated pairs and take out your cell phones.
  3. Write down your 5 favorite apps and your 5 most used apps, and tell your partner.
  4. What did you learn about your partner by learning about their apps? What do we know about other people by understanding what matters to them?
  5. I told the Cherokee story about the two wolves.
  6. So what parts of yourself do you want to feed? Work with your partner to set goals for what kind of person you want to be, and imagine an app that would help you get there. Name your apps. Share with the group. We said that the creation of goals and being good people are Jewish goals – and that there are also specific Jewish goals.
  7. Return to parent-child pairs. What are your family goals? What are the Jewish aspects of your goals? Create your family app, and begin to think about how it might work. We then gave the families paper and markers to create the icon for their apps, so that they could actually keep these ideas in a physical form.

The apps the families created ranged from deeply thoughtful to fun and frivolous. We had scoop, which would help us locate the closest ice cream, and flyinghigh, which would help us with persistence. Other apps included Mitzvahmavens, which helped us find ways to be kind, and speakup, which would help us find out authentic voices.

What’s the impact of these conversations? We don’t know. But we do know that families are hungry for meaningful, thoughtful ideas. We know that intimacy demands depth. We know that adults are as much in need of connection as their kids. Maybe this is one way to making Judaism meaningful for our kids and their families.

Craig Parks has been a Jewish educator at Temple Solel for nearly 25 years, was part of the first cohort for HUC-JIR’s Certificate in Jewish Ed Specializing In Adolescents & Emerging Adulthood, is a Grinspoon Award winner for Excellence in Jewish Education, and is part of the faculty for SLBC. Craig has presented on youth engagement at many Biennials and has recently presented nationally on issues of special needs and inclusion. As a Jewish composer/musician his music focuses on jewish values such as kindness, compassion, and peace building and has been sung all over the country.

Barrett Harr is a Jewish educator based in Farmington Hills, Michigan. She has over 15 years of experience with formal and informal education in a synagogue setting.

Betsy Stone is an educator and psychologist, based in Stamford Ct. She is a Grinspoon award winner, and has taught at HUC-JIR as an adjunct for 17 years.