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Behind the Headlines: Boston Federation Works with Shuls to Create Family Education Centers

August 25, 1993
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Nearly 25 years ago, young Jews in Boston rallied against Jewish federations for maintaining hundreds of agencies “where a Jewish student can have his appendix removed and a mental hospital where he can be committed” but offering nothing for the Jewish soul.

Now federations addressing the concerns for Jewish identity raised by the demonstrators of 1969 are finding that what they have learned running hospitals and social agencies can indeed be used to nurture Judaism.

These lessons from general philanthropy are likely to make an increasing mark on synagogues, as federations begin to work with them to reverse assimilation and intermarriage.

Under a new program of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, synagogues will give new member families the sort of intensive initial interviews hospitals give patients.

The synagogue “intake interviews,” as they are known in medical and social-work jargon, will seek to diagnose not a ruptured appendix or a nervous breakdown.

Rather, it will try to figure out how best to give the family a healthy level of Jewish awareness and commitment through an educational program that involves the parents as well as the children.

The idea that synagogues can and should influence and educate their members is at the core of the CJP initiative, known as Sha’arim/Gateways to Jewish Living: The Jewish Family Educator Initiative.

An outgrowth of the local Commission on Jewish Continuity of the CJP and the state’s synagogue council, Sha’arim will pay half the salaries for family educators hired by synagogues chosen to participate, and gives those educators two years of graduate training in the field at Boston Hebrew College.

Barry Shrage, president of the CJP, described the program “as the first critical, catalytic step in a process aimed at transforming our congregational gateway institutions and the lives of those Jews who pass through them.”


The goal, he said, is to create “congregations that make a serious organized attempt to deeply touch the spiritual lives of every one of their congregants over time.”

The program also aims to establish “universal adult Jewish literacy in our community,” he said.

“We know now that the drop-off-your-kid-at-Hebrew-school method doesn’t work. It didn’t work for the whole generation that are now parents,” said Lesley Litman.

Litman is educational director at Shir Tikva, a Reform congregation in Wayland, Mass., that is one of the seven synagogues participating in the program this year. (Besides the synagogues, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Boston is also receiving a grant.)

The family education movement argues that schools alone cannot transmit Judaism to children. Underlying what has become in recent years the hottest trend in Jewish education is the notion that parents are their children’s most effective teachers. It becomes the responsibility then of the schools to teach the parents, so that they will be able to teach their children, and so that the children will have role models for taking their Jewish studies seriously, according to this approach. But transforming a synagogue educational program from a child-centered institution to one that is family-centered or even adult-centered is not easy.

That’s where the Boston federation comes in. Under the CJP grant, Shir Tikva will employ its family educator 30 hours a week, rather than six.

This has enabled Shir Tikva “to design a program to work with families at the place they come to us. Some come in gung ho, some have bad Jewish memories and just tiptoe in,” said Litman.

“We need to figure out what’s happening when they walk in the door and what programs will work,” she said.

As part of the “intake” process, every new family approaching the synagogue will meet first with either the rabbi or the educational director, followed by a meeting with the family educator.

“There are families that are resistant to coming in. We have to get under that. It’s a defense mechanism from their own bad experiences, that is probably justifiable.

“What we might say to that is, ‘Fine, just come to a Shabbat dinner with your family.’ We sometimes say, ‘Don’t jump in. Take two or three programs this year. Next year you can take a course,'” said Litman.

Litman said the requirement that parents be involved if their kids are to be a part of the synagogue’s education program has not discouraged potential members.

“People are looking for this stuff,” she said. “They just don’t know how to walk in.”

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