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Family education earns average grades

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BOSTON, June 29 (JTA) — It’s an unseasonably hot Sunday morning in May, and about 20 parents clad mainly in T-shirts and shorts are joining their fourth-grade children in Temple Aliyah’s modern, air-conditioned social hall.

The families in this affluent suburban Conservative shul chat over bagels and orange juice, then begin a series of activities to learn about Israel.

They sort through Israeli postcards, discuss what the Jewish state means to them and watch a video about modern Israeli life. Each child makes a gold and silver-foil mizrach, a ritual object hung in the home to indicate the direction of Jerusalem.

“It’s hands-on. You meet the other parents. It gets the kids out of the classroom,” says Judi Appelstein, who has been catching up with her friend, Ellen Sherman, while their two daughters decorate their projects.

“It’s fun to get out of Hebrew school,” says Judi’s daughter, Melissa, as an unidentified baby crawls by and tickles her feet.

So goes one program in Boston’s flagship federation-synagogue family education partnership: Sh’arim, which means gateways.

Through Sh’arim, part of Boston’s Commission on Jewish Continuity, the local federation helps fund part- and full-time family educators in 18 synagogues and sponsors training and professional development for them.

Since the early 1980s, Jewish educators have recognized that they need to engage parents more in their children’s religious education.

While virtually all American congregations have brought in some elements of family education — whether occasional parent-child programs or more structured classes for parents — few have gone as far as Boston in encouraging congregations to hire staff people to develop family education programs.

During the past five years that effort has had mixed results, according to a study released earlier this year.

One of the most comprehensive on Jewish family education to date, the study was conducted by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.

It finds that parents in congregations participating in Sh’arim report a stronger attachment to Judaism and attend prayer services more frequently than before the program began in 1995. Synagogues offer an average of 25 family programs each year and are increasingly committed to making family education a central component of their offerings.

However, the study also reports that parents’ sense of connection to the congregation “increased only slightly.”

Furthermore, according to the report, “there is little evidence to date that Sh’arim has had widespread impact on the Jewish quality of families’ lives at home and in the community.”

It has also had little impact so far on keeping kids involved after their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, said Carolyn Keller, director of the Commission on Jewish Continuity here.

She said the report will likely spur the community to think more about how to get families to bring what they’re learning in synagogue programs into their homes.

That’s “much harder” than simply running interesting programs, Keller said.

The study’s findings are being shared with synagogues and family educators throughout the country. Participating Boston congregations are receiving detailed breakdowns of their own numbers so they can determine how successful their own programs have been.

Asked what other communities might learn from the study, Susan Shevitz, director of Brandeis University’s Hornstein Program in Jewish Communal Service and one of the researchers, said, “Change cannot be expected overnight, and most clear changes happened in the congregations themselves and not the family, which is logical.”

The report found that Jewish family education “has become an accepted part of” the congregations participating in Sh’arim, with most creating family education committees represented on the synagogue board.

As for what it takes for a family to increase its Jewish observance at home, the Boston study offers no specific answers, but urges those involved in family education to “explore new strategies for enhancing the impact of family education on home practices.” It does not list any specific strategies.

Risa Gruberger, director of the Los Angeles-based Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life, praised the Boston Jewish community for doing the study, noting that it is the most comprehensive research available so far on the topic.

However, Gruberger, whose foundation sponsors conferences on and circulates research about Jewish family education, cautioned against using the study — particularly the finding on the failure to transform home lives — to draw broad conclusions about the effectiveness of Jewish family education.

While the study “affects the larger field,” Gruberger noted that it is also specific to one metropolitan area and a limited number of congregations, and that other communities may have different experiences.

As for the finding that Boston’s program did not significantly increase families’ feeling of connectedness to the synagogue, Gruberger said it is important to look at the “big picture” of the culture of the temple to understand why change may not occur, something currently being explored through various national synagogue renewal efforts.

While somewhat amorphous, the renewal efforts — which are being implemented in a relatively small number of congregations, but under discussion elsewhere — primarily revolve around strengthening feelings of community in the synagogue and making the institutions more welcoming and spiritually rewarding.

Most of the efforts also place a strong emphasis on education, seeking to involve parents and other adults as well as the children who attend Hebrew school.

Vicky Kelman, director of family education for San Francisco’s Bureau of Jewish Education and a pioneer in the field, said the fact that Boston’s family education program has not significantly affected families’ connections to the synagogue or home behavior is “disturbing” and “tells me that’s something we need to work on refining.”

However, she noted that while “the purpose of Jewish family education is for families to take charge of their own Jewish lives and not be totally dependent on Jewish institutions to provide them with a Jewish life,” ritual observance in the home might not be the best measure of whether such education is successful.

“If you come to synagogue with your kid, you may be drawn to greater Jewish involvement, but that might be going on an Israel trip with the family, sending your kid to a Jewish summer camp, forming a havurah with friends for a Shabbat dinner,” said Kelman.

“That might not answer on a checklist of: ‘Do you celebrate Chanukah and celebrate Passover?’ “

Back in Temple Aliyah’s social hall, teacher Nurit Gilon confirmed that family education still has a long way to go.

Walking around the room as children worked on projects with their parents, she called the effort “just a beginning,” adding that it would be more effective to have parents in the classrooms on a regular basis, and not just coming to isolated activities.

Nonetheless, parents there seemed pleased as they shepherded their children out to the parking lot.

“How can I expect my son to make an attachment if I don’t participate?” asked Nate Harel, who was born in Israel and said he wanted his children to learn more about the Jewish state.

Like many parents at the program, he said his own religious education was considerably weaker than what his children are getting at Temple Aliyah.

“I’m learning more than I ever knew, and it’s good from that perspective,” he said of the family education programs.

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