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19 April 2013

Some Thoughts on Family Education

By Saul Kaiserman
Director of Lifelong Learning, Temple Emanu-El
New York, NY


In my opinion, family education is not simply about bringing the parents in to learn side-by-side with their children: It is about rethinking the relationship between the institution and the home.

For our learners, the home – not the school, synagogue, or summer camp – is the principal arena for the construction of personal meaning. In The Jew Within, Cohen and Eisen wrote that the immediate family exerts the greatest influence on Jewish observance, and parents are the primary agents of their children’s Jewish development. By the choices they make and the kinds of rituals that they incorporate into their homes, they model for their children what is meaningful and significant in Judaism.

Yet, this influence flows in both directions: Parents and children mutually reinforce each other’s Jewish observances and beliefs. In Linking the Silos: How to Accelerate the Momentum in Jewish Education Today, Historian Jack Wertheimer (the Joseph and Martha Mendelson Professor of American Jewish History at JTS) observed that parents can be “spurred on to further their own Jewish education and upgrade their own Jewish knowledge” and to introduce Jewish rituals into their lives as a result of their child’s Jewish involvement. For this reason, Jo Kay, Director of the New York School of Education of Hebrew Union College, suggests that we should look at the individual and the family as an inseparable unit: “Looking at the learner through the lens of the family impacts our perception of who we are teaching. The learner is no longer an individual without a context, but rather a member of a family and the family is ultimately the “student” we are trying to reach” (in her article “Family Education” in the Ultimate Jewish Teachers Handbook).

Our education programs, therefore, must be designed to have clear tie-ins to home observance and family life, providing resources that enable our participants to engage in the content they are learning. For example, giving them the opportunity to explore how they might make their own Passover seders more meaningful or relevant (or hold one in the first place), provides them with the chance to directly impact on their family’s practice.

By the same token, we must provide volunteer opportunities for parents not simply to hand out Chanukah candles and serve latkes, but to play a critical role in setting the agenda for our family education programs. For example, parents ought to be represented in decisions about whether a Religious School’s Hebrew curriculum will place greater emphasis on learning to speak contemporary Israeli Hebrew or on acquiring the skills to participate in a prayer service.

In this way, parents will be empowered to take responsibility for the Jewish upbringing of their own children, students will be empowered to take part in shaping the Jewish life of their families, and the educational program will be a partner in the process rather than the provider of Jewish identity.


This post is re-printed with permission from the author's blog

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