Dr. Iris Schwartz
Cantor Meredith Greenberg
Rabbi Steven Kushner
Because Judaism is primarily transmitted to the next generation in the home, parents of young Jewish children are a critically important, yet often under-served population in synagogues. Given the changing nature of the Jewish family, many parents do not have the knowledge, skills or abilities to create a rich Jewish home environment. By engaging in small group Jewish learning and life experiences, many taking place in the home, parents gain the tools to teach their children and enrich the Jewish home environment while also creating social relationships for themselves and their children and a connection to the temple through JFJ.
We learn in Pirkei Avot, 1:2 that the world stands on three foundational things, al haTorah - upon Torah, v'al ha-avodah - upon service/work, v'al g'milut chasadim - and upon kind and loving behavior. This text from our Sages which serves to support and sustain a meaningful and connected Jewish life, helps to frame the Jewish Family Journeys curriculum as we strive to reach adults who have made a commitment to learning and who are seeking to develop their Jewish selves in a more significant way.
Al haTorah: No matter what prior knowledge one brings to a learning session or learning community, the mind must be engaged and excited. Through the study of text we begin to light up the brain in a new way. Most of our students have not studied text as adults and as JFJ participants are encountering ideas through the lens of the Jewish tradition, perhaps for the first time in their lives. A portion of our adult learning sessions are always dedicated to the reading and discussion of different Jewish text as it relates to the larger topic. And, our students find that even if on the surface the text does not seem at first to apply to one's modern life, that study does in fact ultimately inspire further and deeper connection.
Al ha-avodah: This second sustaining idea from our Sages is discussed and applied during JFJ sessions as a means to empower our 21st century adult community of learners in the study and application of ritual. Whether the rituals are related to Shabbat home observance or to a fuller understanding and relationship to the ritual and practice of communal prayer, we always seek to inspire JFJ parents to find a new way to practice their Judaism through ritual. Since many of our JFJ parents ended any practice of ritual at b’nai mitzvah, involvement in Jewish observance is a brand new experience as an adult.
V'al g'milut chasadim: Learning about and applying the ethical and moral teachings of our tradition inspires the JFJ learners as they seek to evolve as Jewish adults and also as parents of young Jewish children who seek as well to grow into a community of people who belong to and care about each other. Behaving with kindness and love toward others can mean doing acts of tzedakah. It can also mean the quiet every day ways in which we behave with one another, even when no one is looking. Because they already care deeply about teaching their children to be good and contributing people in the world, the study of g'milut chasidim often motivates JFJ adults to make the most relevant connections to their personal lives and to go deeper into exploring its meaning.
Many parents today are looking to have Jewish experiences with their children, find social connections for themselves and their children, and to either learn or re-learn more about the Jewish holidays so that they are better prepared to teach their children. Jewish Family Journeys strives to nurture and provide parents of young Jewish children with the knowledge and skills necessary to move forward in the making of adult decisions about incorporating Judaism in their lives and in the ability to enhance and strengthen the Jewish environment in their own homes. JFJ also offers opportunities for parents to be members of a smaller community within the larger synagogue congregation enabling them to establish relationships with peers, clergy and other synagogue professionals and in so doing create deeper connections to the synagogue. JFJ includes both parallel and family learning sessions and Jewish life experiences at the synagogue and in participants’ homes.
With the Jewish calendar as the basis for the JFJ curriculum, the program consists of two meetings per month, one taking place at the temple and the other in the home of a participating family. Each JFJ session begins with a circle time and a way of noticing each other and affirming that everyone is part of the community. After an explanation of the session’s theme adults and children separate for a parallel learning which is then followed by a family activity.
During the synagogue-based session adults learn about the foundation of each holiday. Their attitudes and beliefs are challenged and they begin to uncover and make connections to tradition as they wrestle with age-old and modern Jewish texts. The home-based meeting provides a relaxed atmosphere in which to continue learning through discussion and Jewish family experiences and places holiday observance in the appropriate context – the home. Personalizing the learning is always the goal, and time is made in all sessions for the sharing of ideas and individual practices. Celebrations like Shabbat dinners, Havdalah happenings, a Hanukkah party and a Tu b’Shevat Seder, all which take place in a participant's home, further enhance the experience.
Because the home is where Judaism is transferred to the next generation, and because strengthening the Jewish home environment is a major goal of JFJ, the home is a natural learning and doing venue for this program. By using the home as a location for serious, purposefully planned and continuous family education, JFJ changes the nature and tenor of the conversation and learning, responding in a unique way to the needs of its 21st century Jewish adult learners and makes it easier for participants to transfer these skills and experiences to their own homes.
Home meetings are planned with great intention. Families who are able take a turn hosting the group. This helps to create from the very outset a personal buy-in and a shared sense of responsibility. Almost every home-based meeting starts on a sensory level with a parent-child cooking experience. Could there be anything better than the smell of challah baking in the oven while studying about Shabbat? As the Jewish holidays are gradually demystified through group learning which also includes some real-time experiences, a bridge to home observance is built and families feel encouraged, supported, inspired and more able to teach their children and celebrate Judaism in their own homes. Further, these warm, intimate home-based meetings help to break down social barriers, facilitate friendships, and place the holidays and their rituals in the most appropriate context - the home.
There is a range of the kinds of interpretations of holidays that Cantor Greenberg, adult class teacher, tries to provide to give adult students a sense of the breadth of Jewish text. “My first job,” said Cantor Greenberg, “is to give everyone permission to allow themselves to think as Jewish adults, not children. They are allowed to question. I encourage them to be honest about things like whether or not they really believed that God wrote the Torah….Who do you think you’re supposed to think about wrote the Torah? Those kinds of provocative questions are necessary to start an open, honest dialogue to start to learn as Jewish adults in a Reform setting.... I also always try to use tradition. I use some proof text, a variety of interpretations, both modern and traditional, of that text and then have a discussion about the possibilities of how we might interact with it. One example is using the full text of the Megillat Esther and commentary from the Baal Shem Tov. What always works every time is to get to the personal. How are we experiencing these holidays already? What could we see ourselves doing that would bring more meaning around that season, that time of year, and that practice? There is a tremendous amount of sharing between adults about concerns. I’ve had families say out loud that ‘I don’t think I could do this at home – part of what stops me is that I don’t read Hebrew” said Cantor Greenberg. "That part of the dialogue and the learning is about becoming each other’s confidante and learning to be comfortable saying things out loud things like 'I didn’t know what Midrash was, I had no idea.'”
Rather than to just repeat the answer they were given when they were children, adult JFJ participants are not only allowed but encouraged to talk about what they really think about the topic being discussed. A particularly exciting study session taught was about Purim. The Cantor asked the adult learners to think about why some of the Sages said that in some ways Purim is the most important holiday of the year. “There were unending amounts of aha moments that were going around the room – because it brought out how we assume we’re supposed to think about God and who’s in charge and our own kinds of myths about standing up for ourselves and God intervening or not and how much we use those ideas in our actual lives…no one had studied Purim as an adult.” Other conversations in the adult study session included questions like “Are you a people if you are never challenged to be a people? If there had never been a time when Jews were persecuted would we still be Jews?” Cantor Greenberg suggested that “No one had ever had those conversations before around Purim for example which was only ever about being a child wearing a costume.”
We have found that there are so many Jewish adults who have not been involved in Jewish learning since they were 13 years old and, as well, non-Jewish parents of Jewish children who are longing not only for someone to show them some way in but also how they can use this newly learned Jewish knowledge in their lives. JFJ provides an opportunity for parents of young Jewish children to learn about Judaism on an adult level and to gain the tools necessary to create a richer Jewish environment in the home so they can transmit Judaism to their children. Additionally, learning and experiencing Judaism with a small community of peers within the context of the larger synagogue, and having opportunities to create shared Jewish memories with their children through JFJ has proven to help create a bridge to further Jewish communal connection and observance for families. In working to meet the needs of this very important yet often under-served cohort in our community, the parents of young Jewish children, Jewish Family Journeys strives to make Jewish wisdom accessible and directly applicable to the lives of its participants.
Data included here is excerpted from the April 2016 research project “The Jewish Family Journeys Program: A Response to the Reduced Ability of Contemporary American Jewish Parents to Transmit Judaism to Their Children” by Iris Schwartz. Information about the efficacy of the program was gathered through an on-line survey, by a non-participant observer, and through individual interviews. The on-line SurveyMonkey questionnaire was sent to all of the 79 adults whose families enrolled in Jewish Family Journeys from September 2010 through May 2015. A total of 46 responses representing a return rate of 58% were received. Insights from Cantor Meredith Greenberg, teacher and co-creator of JFJ were obtained through a personal interview.
Summary of the Major Findings
Jewish Family Journeys is an alternative education program for families with young children at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J. The overriding goal is to encourage, support and enable every family and every individual within the family to take their next Jewish step, no matter where they were when they started the program. The following conclusions are suggested by the research study:
A primary motivation for the parents of young Jewish children to enroll in JFJ is to share Jewish experiences with their children.
An equally important motivation to enroll in JFJ is social. The adults who enroll have a strong desire to belong to a small community of peers, find friendships for themselves and their children and create a connection to the synagogue.
Parents enroll in JFJ wanting to increase their Jewish knowledge to be better prepared to teach their children.
Survey data indicates an increase in Shabbat ritual observance levels 6 months post-JFJ.
JFJ exceeded the personal expectations and desired family outcomes of all survey respondents in every category including: meeting new friends, feeling part of a community of peers, feeling more connected to the temple, having special Jewish learning experiences with their children, being more knowledgeable about Judaism and the Jewish holidays, and better prepared to teach their children about Judaism.
Using the home as a learning venue for JFJ made a positive difference in the experience for all participants. A warmer and more personal environment, the home helped to break down social barriers, facilitate friendships and make it more possible for the group to come together as a cohesive whole.
Personal Expectations and Outcomes
Respondents were provided with 16 possible outcomes to help clarify what they hoped to gain through participation in Jewish Family Journeys. The same categories were used to assess personal outcomes reported after participation. Respondents also had the option of offering an additional written explanation describing their motivation to participate. Comparing the personal expectations data with personal outcomes results helped to ascertain how effective JFJ was in meeting participants’ goals.
Survey results indicate favorable evaluations when comparing participants’ personal expectations and reported outcomes. For example, while only 45% started the program hoping to learn new skills a full 66% either agreed or strongly agreed that they did. Only 66% looked forward to becoming more knowledgeable about Judaism however 89% either agreed or strongly agreed that they did. At the conclusion of JFJ 71% of parents agreed or strongly agreed that they were more prepared to teach their children when only 56% initially identified this as a desired outcome. 70% wanted to find new ways to make Judaism personally meaningful. A full 89% reported that they did. When it came to social indicators 71% were hoping to meet new friends and 77% felt successful in this regard. 89% wanted to feel part of a small community of peers and 84% ended the year feeling more connected to others. 92% were interested in feeling more part of the temple community and 84% agreed that through their participation in JFJ this happened. The desire “to grow as a Jew” which 74% identified as important or very important resulted in a positive outcome for 63% surveyed. Looking forward to sharing parenting ideas with others was important to 63% and 60% felt that they were successful in doing so. 66% wanted to find personal meaning with 62% feeling this was achieved. A complete list of survey options and responses is attached to this application.
Individual comments provide another window into the expectations of adults prior to their JFJ experience. Parents very much wanted to demonstrate to their children that Judaism and Jewish education is important. Responses about personal expectations included: I wanted to “show my children that learning is lifelong, and show interest and pride in being Jewish, which is what we expect of them;” I wanted to “connect my kid’s Jewish learning to mine; share in the learning together; be a good role model for my kids and share this important part of our lives together.” Additional adult reflections can be found in the attachment to this application.
JFJ adults noted factors like the following as desired personal outcomes: developing a greater sense of connection to the temple community and its leadership; a stronger connection to Judaism; an increased feeling of Jewish engagement as the head of Jewish household. Extended comments about personal outcomes post-JFJ included: “I feel that JFJ strengthened my sense of connection to the practice of Judaism; strengthened my identity as the head of a Jewish household;” and “My family feels more united in its recognition of Judaism as one of our central organizing structures.” Additional responses can be found in the attachment to this application.
When asked to “share your observations about how Jewish Family Journeys succeeded or failed in meeting one or more of your personal objectives” typical answers were: “Success. Wife and I feel more connected to Judaism;” “I felt like there was a lot of content and there wasn't a lot of time to really socialize or interact with the other people in the group which is what I was really looking for;” “Very much succeeded in making me more comfortable in having and heading a Jewish household;” “I succeeded in demonstrating to my children the importance of learning about Judaism; “I certainly feel more connected to my peers and the temple overall.”
Public and Private Jewish Practice and Engagement
Data gathered related to public and private behaviors which are commonly accepted indicators of personal Jewish engagement. These included Shabbat ritual observance, commitment to Jewish education, and identifying that Judaism is personally important and relevant. Pre-program participation, a full 97% of JFJ parents either agreed or strongly agreed that it was important to create a Jewish home environment for their children. Participating in JFJ strengthened this for many. As a result of JFJ participation 76% reported that their feelings about the importance of creating a Jewish home environment for their children increased. Prior to JFJ, 63% either agreed or strongly agreed that observing Shabbat at home was important. Post-JFJ this number rose to 77%. Approximately 32% of adults did have some kind of plan to continue their Jewish learning before registering for JFJ. Post-JFJ 65% reported wanting to continue their Jewish learning. 81% of adults already had a strong commitment to providing their children with a Jewish education before their involvement with JFJ. 59% report that this desire was strengthened by participating in JFJ. Preceding involvement in JFJ 73% felt that Jewish education was relevant to their lives. Almost 50% reported that this feeling was made stronger after their JFJ experience. About 86% already felt that Judaism was important in their lives before enrolling in JFJ. As a result of JFJ 46% believed that this feeling was strengthened.
Personal comments related to Jewish engagement outcomes demonstrate an overall positive JFJ experience. Typical responses included: “I feel more connected to Judaism and the Jewish community. This is something new (and welcome) for me;” “To draw from the wisdom of the group and then customize the holidays to our family has been transformational. And also SOOOOO easy.” Further participant observations can be found in the attachment to this application.
Family Goals and Outcomes
With rare exception, parents enrolled in Jewish Family Journeys because it was a family experience that would allow them to do Jewish things with their children. Matching initial family goals expressed by adults with perceived outcomes, we find again that JFJ met the expectations of quite a substantial percentage of participants. While pre-JFJ 75% wanted to learn about Shabbat and other holidays with their children, post-JFJ 91% reported success in achieving this goal. 81% wanted to explore different ways of growing Jewishly as a family and 95% felt that this happened. Almost all parents (92%) indicated that JFJ would be something special that was Jewish they could do with their children and 94% reported that this was the case. 95% looked at JFJ as an avenue that would help their family feel more connected to the temple and 80% felt successful in this regard. 58% also reported participating in more temple activities as a family at least 6 months after JFJ. Getting to know Cantor Greenberg better was a goal for 65% of participants and a full 83% reported that this had been accomplished. Given these results, JFJ was extraordinarily successful in achieving its goal of providing Jewish experiences parents could have with their children.
Pre-Jewish Family Journeys Ritual Observance
Immediately prior to participating in the Jewish Family Journeys program 9% of respondents indicated that they always lit Shabbat candles while 67% said that they sometimes did this. 9% always said the Kiddush with 56% indicating doing this sometimes. 9% always said the motzi with 60% sometimes saying this blessing. 7% always had a Shabbat dinner while 64% sometimes did. And 4% always attended services while 49% said they did this sometimes.
Home Ritual Observance At Least 6 Months Post Participation in Jewish Family Journeys
Comparing Jewish ritual observance levels pre-JFJ involvement with the same categories at least 6 months after participating in JFJ sheds some light on the longer term influences the program has had on many of its participants. The combined percentages of respondents who fall in the always or sometimes level in the Shabbat ritual observance of lighting candles for example is the same 76% for both the pre- and 6 months post-JFJ groups. There is a surprising and encouraging shift that takes place. The percentage of those who now always light Shabbat candles rises as compared with the number of families who reported always lighting Shabbat candles before participating in JFJ. In the 6 months post-JFJ group 27% report always lighting Shabbat candles as compared with 9% who always lit Shabbat candles pre-JFJ. 49% report that they sometimes light Shabbat candles 6 months post-JFJ while pre-JFJ 67% said they sometimes lit Shabbat candles. More adults then report always lighting Shabbat candles 6 months post-JFJ than they did before they participated in the program. The data points to a conclusion that participation in JFJ is at least partially responsible for motivating more families to observe the ritual of lighting Shabbat candles on a more regular basis.
Similar results were found in the frequency of observance of the other Shabbat rituals of saying Kiddush and motzi. In the 6 month post-JFJ group approximately 15% to 18% more adults indicate that they always participate in the three different Shabbat rituals (candles, Kiddush, motzi) than reported pre-JFJ for the same behaviors. The increase in the always category produced a decline of 10% to 18% of post-JFJ respondents who sometimes observe the different Shabbat rituals as compared to pre-JFJ rates. 6 months post-JFJ there was a noticeable number of families that moved from the sometimes column to the always column of observance of Shabbat rituals when contrasted with their pre-JFJ behaviors. In every category of ritual observance 6 months post-JFJ the trend is upward. There is also a 17% rise 6 months post-JFJ in the percentage of those who either always or sometimes have a Shabbat dinner. A 9% increase can be seen in the combined number of those who always or sometimes attend Shabbat services.
While the same percentage of families engage in Shabbat rituals at home both pre- and post-JFJ, the numbers of those who at least 6 month post-JFJ indicate that they always practice Shabbat rituals represents a rise in the regularity of observance. The data suggests that participation in JFJ might indeed motivate families to move toward greater frequency of observance of Shabbat rituals at home. Strengthening the Jewish home environment, which involves increasing the frequency of ritual observance, is a goal of JFJ. Even given the small sample size, the upward trend in the ritual observance rates of JFJ participants at least 6 months after the program shown by the data suggests a measure of programmatic success.
Perhaps the most unique feature of Jewish Family Journeys is that much of it takes place in the homes of participants. Counting class sessions, Shabbat dinners, Havdalah celebrations, Hanukkah party, and Tu b’Shevat Seder, more than half of the JFJ meetings take place in a home. This seems to make a positive difference in the experience. The home was seen as a more comfortable learning environment than a classroom by 67% of survey respondents. 58% felt the home provided a more personal experience making it easier, as reported by 70%, to make social connections. 73% thought that being in the home helped to solidify the group. When asked if JFJ would have been just as effective if taught only at the temple only 24% agreed. Approximately 73% felt that the mix of home-to-temple meetings was about right.
Looking at the effect meeting in the home had on the ability of participants to transfer the learning to their own homes, the survey results are less impressive. 24% said that it made a difference “in their ability to do Jewish rituals at home when the group met in my home” and 30% said that “practicing Jewish rituals in the home of another JFJ family encouraged me to try Jewish rituals in my home.” 61% indicated that “learning in a home environment made a significant difference to the success of the JFJ program for me.”
Additional comments in the survey about the nature of meeting in the home include: “The homes were warm.;” “It definitely made it more personal and meaningful and brought us closer together as a group;” “It de-mystified the experience of observing holidays, etc. Very important aspect of helping me to do more Jewish practices with my family plus it helped us feel closer to our group;” “It helped forge friendships.”
JFJ Adult Interviews
While there were differences cited by the 21 people interviewed regarding their JFJ experience, the content and tenor of each interview were strikingly similar and served to support and “put a face on” survey results through extended conversation.
Motivations to Join JFJ
What motivated people to join JFJ? Given that most TNT families are dual income, time for extra-curricular family activities is scarce. The three primary reasons parents cited for joining JFJ were 1) to have a Jewish learning experience with their children 2) to be part of a community 3) to enhance their Jewish knowledge. Every parent talked about wanting to spend quality time with their child and, as one parent indicated “I was excited to have shared Jewish memories with my kid.” A couple with three daughters (twin girls were in JFJ) had given the role of Judaism and Jewish education in their family a great deal of thought prior to enrolling in JFJ. They shared that:
“We had discussions – are we in on this (Jewish education) or are we just in it for the Bat Mitzvah? We had tried doing Shabbat before (which was somewhat unsuccessful).” Further, the woman said that “I am a big believer in experiential education and so for me the chance to do that (with my child) - I would jump at. I was totally on-board. I think experiencing it (Jewish education) as a family is superior to just dropping your kids off. If you do it for a year or two as a family you have so much more to stand on than if you just drop them off. This (JFJ) was about sharing the experience together.”
The desire to belong to the community and to make friends was an equally strong factor motivating parents to enroll. One comment typical of many was: “I wanted to feel more integrated into the temple. I wanted to make friends…..I wanted us to feel like we belonged.” Participating in JFJ seemed also to further reinforce and enhance relationships among those parents who knew each other from their child’s TNT Shoresh nursery school years. “I was so pleasantly surprised to feel such a community at Ner Tamid. I did not have that at my temple growing up as a kid. JFJ just further cemented and deepened the relationships (I already had) with other parents in the group.” Every person interviewed expressed the strong desire to belong to a community of peers and to feel more connected to the temple. They said that they were looking for friendships for themselves and for their children.
There was a diversity of Jewish educational background among those interviewed. Some felt confident in their skills and abilities to create a rich Jewish environment at home. Most did not. One parent hoped to be “learning more about Jewish history, culture and holidays to be better informed and to be able to teach my kids and have a conversation with them.” Many of those with childhood synagogue school educations had forgotten much of what they had learned. “I liked relearning – I don’t remember what I learned in religious school.” One parent remarked that “If I got a better (Jewish) education I could do a better job as a parent.” Another said that “I was looking for conversations that were relevant to me.” Even one parent who attended JFJ gatherings infrequently due to scheduling conflicts said that “I learned quite a bit. JFJ exceeded my expectations. It was able to be meaningful to adults and I enjoyed hearing other people’s point of view.”
A somewhat different perspective about the value of the adult learning part of JFJ was voiced by an intermarried couple. The husband talked about growing up in a Jewish household which he said “gave him a reference of what Jewish life is.” His wife, raised as a Catholic, did not have the same experience and didn’t know what a Jewish home was really like. They both felt that the adult discussions were interesting and gave them a chance to “drill down” to hear other points of view. Prior to enrolling in JFJ they thought that getting to know some other people and seeing how they do Jewish things at home would be beneficial. And, they found that participating in JFJ gave them a chance to “apply and practice what you learned with other people.”
Some Family Activities
The cooking activities done during home-based sessions were among the favorite activities. The most commonly remembered was the preparation of different types of charoset, a traditional Passover dish, from Jewish communities around the world. Various people commented that this was not only a great activity to do with their children, but that it opened their eyes to the variety of places in which Jews lived fostering for them more of a global Jewish connection. Many mentioned that this particular JFJ cooking experience had an influence on their own Passover Seder. When speaking about similar JFJ cooking projects one person said: “I am afraid of cooking. But now I incorporate these recipes in our celebrations. I now make the macaroons and the Moroccan charoset. When the holidays come around the kids know all that is going to happen and 100% of that is JFJ. All of that is so precious to me.”
The family projects at the end of each session also provided parents and children time to share Jewish experiences together. These included activities like making a Shabbat blessings booklet to use at their own Shabbat table or participating in Purim paper bag dramatics. Each family was tasked with creating an engaging presentation about a specific holiday for the last meeting of the year. This allowed for a review of what had been studied and a chance for each family to lead the group in an imaginative, original “re-visit” to the holiday. Some of the families cited this project as one of their favorite JFJ memories.
Each group had its own dynamic based on the personalities, relationships, and levels of commitment of participants, personal goals, group size, and other influences. While the structure and curriculum for every cohort was relatively the same, each group was unique. One parent commented that their group gelled because they were “all after the same thing” and that "everyone had a similar basic initial motivation to join..." Shared experiences, like decorating a sukkah, provided opportunities for side conversations and really helped the group come together and relationships to form. The general consensus was that everyone felt that they had achieved their goal of creating connections and friendships to other temple members through JFJ to varying degrees. At the very least, each JFJ participant interviewed now had an increased comfort level when walking into the temple. As one person said, “there are always other people who are familiar and to whom I can say hello.”
JFJ groups varied in size from six to ten families. The unfamiliarity of the concept of meeting in the home was daunting at first, not knowing what to expect when the home became the classroom. One parent said, “It’s intimidating having everyone at your home. Looking back, those are some of the best memories. My son enjoyed having everyone at the house. I had a great time hosting everyone and I had a great time at other people’s homes.” An ideal size for the group was as one adult said when “The group (was) big enough to be interesting but small enough to be intimate.” Another commented that the group needs to be “big enough so that if you have to be away the group can continue on without you, but small enough that when you have to be away you are missed.”
Learning Venue: Home vs Temple
At least half of JFJ takes place in the home. Home-based meetings were “more infused with the spirit of the holidays…it felt more personal and more fun.” Home-based sessions helped to create a sense of community. One couple agreed that “There is something cozy about being at someone’s house. It’s more personal.” After sharing a Shabbat experience in someone’s home one person said she felt that “I can handle that (celebrating Shabbat at home).” It was commonly felt that being in a home provided a friendlier, more intimate, low-keyed environment and encouraged more closeness among group members and in general lowered social barriers.
Some people believed that learning about and experiencing Shabbat in a home helped to make Shabbat rituals more accessible and easier to transfer to their own home. A single parent said that JFJ has “given me the legitimacy to feel I can do things (like bless my children on Shabbat) and it strengthened me as the head of a Jewish household and that’s really a positive thing.” She continued, saying that participating in Jewish celebrations in a home “certainly made me feel what was being modeled was more accessible because it was done in a home.” One married couple felt that the JFJ Shabbat dinners “were a good bridge to doing it at home. If we did it with the group it felt more natural to do it at home.” Participating in Jewish holiday rituals and experiences in a home “modeled how to do Judaism at home” for this parent. One Jewish parent who has a non-Jewish spouse revealed that she liked going into other people’s homes because it allowed her daughter to see others kids in their own environment. She also liked doing Jewish things at a home like building a sukkah because “that is where it’s supposed to be.”
Both the temple and the home added different dimensions to the success of JFJ. As one father said, “The home offered the observations of how other people celebrated a particular holiday or event and how they incorporated it into their lives and their family as opposed to the temple feeling more like a teaching opportunity which was more formal.” Another participant summed up the home component by saying “Having it at homes made it seem like real life.”
Outcomes: Reported Changes in Ideas or Behaviors
Interviewees described changes in thought or behavior either personally or as reflected in the home environment as a result of participating in JFJ. Results included increased Shabbat observance at home, feeling a stronger connection to the community, and wanting to learn more.
The following are indicative of changes in ideas or behaviors resulting from participation in JFJ:
o One couple expressed that as a direct result of JFJ they were able to “find their way into Shabbat. JFJ made it feel less foreign and awkward to me” said one mother. She continued: “Before JFJ I saw Shabbat as an obligation that I need to choose if I want to fulfill it. I can make a dinner and put out the candlesticks and attempt this obligation or I cannot. But instead I have come to see it as more of an opportunity. There’s a huge difference in feeling between an obligation put on you of something you think you should do and an opportunity for you to do something special for your family. Another thing that stuck with me – when do you ever get to bless another person? Pretty much never… unless you take that opportunity… unless you choose to bless your children on Friday night. Opportunities don’t come that often in life so if you see them then you might want to consider them.”
o As a result of JFJ “I made more of an effort to do Shabbat at home. It also reinforced my connection to the Jewish community. It helped strengthen my ties, commitment, and energy to Ner Tamid going forward.” This parent is currently the congregational president of Temple Ner Tamid.
o One of the adults who particularly enjoyed the intellectual aspect of the program said that “I’ve taken what we’ve done and gone further. I bought a copy of the Bible and a new haggadah – A Night to Remember – and I am going to read it over the summer.”
Additional excerpts related to changes in attitudes and actions directly attributable to JFJ are included in the attachment to this application.
What Was the JFJ Experience Like? What Was Your Ultimate Take Away?
Those being interviewed were asked to reflect on the ultimate meaning the JFJ experience had in their lives and to identify a fundamental lesson learned from their participation in the program. Typical responses include:
o JFJ demonstrated that “I can take Judaism as an opportunity and not an obligation and I can make it how I want it and make it work. It doesn’t have to be perfect or fulfill anyone else’s standards or what anyone else thinks it should look like.” Her husband added that “A synagogue can be a place that can foster the feeling – it’s about opening up the possibilities of Judaism – getting the opportunities to learn all perspectives. We’ve more fully embraced our kids’ (Jewish) education.”
o “JFJ is a wonderful opportunity for you and your child to learn together about being Jewish, to participate together in Jewish learning, and to strengthen your connection to each other, the temple, the community and Judaism.” As an ultimate take away this parent shared that “I wanted to be a leader for (my son). Because of the experience we’ve both learned. It’s brought me closer into the temple and allowed me a real feeling of belonging. I was always culturally Jewish. Now I can begin to feel religiously Jewish and feel comfortable with that identity which I never did. It’s a journey that I am on with my kids.”
Additional comments can be found in the attachment to this application.
Cantor Greenberg commented that meeting in the home is “...such a simple idea but it’s so impactful, and it never failed.” She said that “When we were in a person’s living room talking about anything of substance – any topic, any holiday, there was always some significant shift in the group being more attached to each other. I always felt it. Some of the JFJ families did grow up celebrating Shabbat at home and are already doing it with their children and others are never going to do this. But, for those families in the middle, where if they just got a few more tools they would put a sukkah up in their backyard, if they just got a few more tools they would start to come to the synagogue more often because they felt like that was a place where they could learn and grow, I think that we did start seeing that,” she said. “We did open up the door,” said Cantor Greenberg. “I had families say that ‘we did bake a challah again this week.’”
The Cantor described a situation regarding a non-Jewish JFJ parent raising a Jewish child whose Jewish husband never came to a single session. This mother seemed to love what was “being created with her daughter while she was at Jewish pre-school and wanted to see how to keep it going.” During the year in JFJ the Cantor was concerned that this parent was not getting her needs met. She had no Jewish background or knowledge. This mother and daughter had selected the holiday of Sukkot to present to the group at the last JFJ session. They brought a small sukkah made out of the snack foods that the child usually ate (cheese cubes, carrot sticks, blueberries, etc.). The mother explained their small sukkah in the following way: “What I’ve learned this year in this program is that I’m not going to build a sukkah in my backyard yet. I’m not there yet but I know how to make a tiny sukkah with my daughter out of snack food now. And when we created this together we felt like we were taking one more step toward celebrating this holiday.” Cantor Greenberg told this mother that “what you said really articulated what I have felt is the main driving force behind creating JFJ, which is for every family, and perhaps for every individual within the family, to take their next Jewish step wherever they began from…to take a step into a Jewish life from wherever you are within this year.”
We are always mindful of how two specific texts encapsulate what we’ve learned about applied Jewish wisdom as we assess the successes and plan for the future of Jewish Family Journeys.
Ben Bag Bag would say: turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing that works better than it. – Avot 5, 22
Jewish wisdom teaches us to keep turning and turning the Torah, to reflect and interact with it, to renew ourselves, to find meaning, to grow as individuals, and to connect to community. Since the inception of the Jewish Family Journeys program we have continued to learn how important it is to be willing to be spontaneous and inclusive in our teaching of adults. Understanding that everyone comes to Jewish learning from their own starting point, from their own set of life experiences and with their own agenda is key. Additionally, everyone who joins Jewish Family Journeys has their own specific needs and wants related to what they would like to get out of the program for themselves and for their families. While there are always carefully planned lessons, room must be made to take some detours, generated by the questions and life stories of group members, as they search for understanding and connection to the text, to the tradition, and to the community.
A major goal of JFJ is to inspire and encourage each individual to take their next Jewish step, whatever that might be. This step will be different for everyone. What we have learned is that the search for meaning and connection through Jewish wisdom is not a straight line or always contained in a written lesson plan. Rather, in allowing participants to turn it and turn it again, whether in the context of the group, in conversation with the teacher, or in private, JFJ attempts to motivate individuals to consider and reflect on the value and meaning of Jewish wisdom and how they can incorporate its teachings in their thinking and behavior as individuals and as parents.
The second text that is fundamental to the philosophy of JFJ and very much part of the evaluation process is na’aseh v’nishma – We will do and then we will understand. (Shemot 24:7) We constantly assess if JFJ is engaging participants in experiences that foster personal Jewish growth. Judaism is a religion of action. “Doing” helps us to pay attention to what matters and to learn and find meaning through our own actions and through participation in the community. We have learned through the JFJ experience that success means something different to each individual and that it can’t be measured by one standard. Success happens when each person not only feels empowered to take their next Jewish step but actually does so – whether it be lighting Shabbat candles each week or making challah or acknowledging a shehecheyanu moment and saying the appropriate blessing.
Allowing Jewish wisdom to become part of your life is a slow process. We are mindful that when we provide JFJ participants chances to kindle the Shabbat lights for example, and feel the power of the ritual and the need to bring light and blessing to the world, we can be opening the door just a little further to greater understanding and connection to Jewish wisdom. Involving families not only in learning about the holiday of Sukkot but then cooking for the soup kitchen can, and often does, motivate participants to pay more attention to community and notice those in need more often.
We’ve learned that keeping the bar to involvement in JFJ as low as “just showing up” has truly encouraged participation. The sharing of personal stories about home holiday celebrations has opened up new possibilities to participants. Many adults for example seem to feel that celebrating Shabbat at home is quite daunting - that there was a right way and a wrong way to do it. And, if it can’t be done perfectly than it shouldn’t be attempted. What we learned that encouraged more families to attempt observing Shabbat at home was the sharing of personal stories. The revelation, for example, that Shabbat does not have to mean serving chicken soup and all of the fixings, but that spaghetti and jarred sauce was fine, seemed to give permission to adults to try celebrating Shabbat at home, even if imperfectly, in their minds. And, these attempts at Shabbat observance led to continued Shabbat observance in some homes.
We’ve learned that a space needs to be created for open, honest dialogue that challenges adults to question as adults and rather than to recite answers they learned as children and that showing that there are a variety of interpretations to text, encouraging and validating that everyone reacts and interprets it in their own way is critical to success. In order to foster the desire to keep learning there needs to be a personal element and connection to the learning. Adult learners must see value for their lives in the learning and understand how it can be used to add direction that enhances and provides meaning to how they walk in the world.
By providing JFJ adults and families opportunities to learn and do mitzvot, by engaging them in meaningful Jewish ritual, and by opening the door to taking on responsibilities that help to fix our broken world, the lesson for all is that we “do” by living Jewish lives, and in so doing we come to understand that which matters most. We try to teach our JFJ students to apply the wisdom of our people and allow it to help shape their lives and the lives of their children. No matter how tough our questions are or how distanced we may feel from a particular text or tradition, Jewish wisdom never breaks down or crumbles. In point of fact it grows stronger as we struggle to understand its importance in our lives and we are made more whole as a human race when we, the Jewish community and the individuals who make that community exist, behave with the ethical and moral imperatives of our tradition's wisdom.
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