January 6, 2005
Out of the Car, Into the Classroom
Years ago, Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom would run up and down the Hebrew school carpool line handing out cassette tapes of his and Rabbi Harold Schulweis' sermons.
"If you're not going to come inside, at least listen to this," he'd tell parents.
Today Feinstein teaches a new monthly Wednesday afternoon class, It Is My Turn to Learn, during the same hours as Hebrew school, specifically designed for these parents. And while Valley Beth Shalom offers a plethora of courses and lectures, this one focuses on basic Jewish education -- prayer, Torah, prophets -- which many parents never received.
Linda Dennis, mother of 13-year-old Sabrina, said, "It's an extra opportunity to learn something new, something that's always applicable to everyday life."
Historically, Jewish parents were knowledgeable about Judaism and, in fact, were obligated to serve as their children's teachers. "And you shall teach them diligently to your children," the Shema commands.
Jewish immigration to the United States, however, changed that paradigm. For one thing, said Isa Aron, professor at Los Angeles' Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and founding director of Experiment in Congregational Education, "Many immigrants chucked everything Jewish at the first opportunity they got."
"[Over time] the parents depended on the schools to give their children a Jewish identity and Jewish information as they began to lose it in the family," said Dr. Ron Wolfson, vice president and dean of the Center for Jewish Education at the University of Judaism (UJ). "The traditional role of parent-as-teacher got turned over to the experts."
Starting in the late 1970s, Wolfson and other academics realized that day schools and religious schools were not going to have much impact unless parents became involved because, as Wolfson explained, "The parent is ultimately the arbiter of how Jewish the home is going to be."
That marked the beginning of modern Jewish family education.
Today, most synagogues and day schools offer many opportunities for parents to learn -- from Hebrew reading crash courses to holiday workshops to weekly Torah portion studies. Plus, places such as Aish HaTorah and UJ offer a variety of classes, including Yesod, which means "foundation," UJ's comprehensive two-year certificate program.
"There's a jealousy and a thirst for knowledge," said Barbara Klaristenfeld, family education coordinator at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge. "Parents want to speak intelligently with their children."
But the reality is that parents lead busy, complicated lives. Additionally, many harbor unpleasant memories of their own religious school days and are reluctant to give Jewish learning a second chance. Thus, it's a challenge for synagogues and day schools to create programs that parents find exciting, compelling and convenient.
One new program that is gaining success is Milken Community High School's Parent Learner Circle. Here parents, divided into geographical groups, meet in each other's homes every six weeks to study such topics as ethics of speech, God-wrestling and justice and righteousness.
"We wanted to create a more substantive learning program that was parallel with the students' curriculum," said Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin, Milken's rabbinic director and Learner Circle instructor.
In its second year, the program has more than 70 parents, double last year's enrollment.
"As adults, we don't have to worry about how we're going to do at our bar or bat mitzvah, so we have the luxury to actually look at what this all means," Milken parent Allan Ickowitz said. "For me, it reinforces how great Judaism is."
Eventually Bernat-Kunin would like to see Learner Circles at all grade levels, with large numbers of parents committed to ongoing study and a culture of learning.
Another new program is KEF, the Hebrew word for fun, at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. Replacing traditional Sunday morning classes, this program brings together children and at least one parent to learn together as a community and to actually experience Judaism. Students continue to attend Hebrew school on Wednesday afternoons.
KEF, which began in September 2002 and developed in conjunction with Experiment in Congregational Education at HUC-JIR, is "a work in progress" according to Laura Geller, Temple Emanuel's senior rabbi. For now, it is deliberately limited to 15 families, with children ranging from first grade to post-bar mitzvah. Families attend Shabbat dinner and services once a month at the temple's Synaplex Friday Night and study together for three hours the next afternoon. Additionally, families celebrate monthly Shabbat dinners at each other's homes, participate in monthly tikkun olam activities, study books together and create family projects on Torah and Shabbat.
"KEF is empowering the parents to be their children's teachers, which is what Judaism is about in so many ways," said Stephanie Marshall, one of two full-time KEF teachers and a graduate student at HUC-JIR.
KEF also allows busy parents and children to spend valuable time together.
Kim Simon, an African American woman who has recently converted to Judaism, participates with her son Joshua, 14.
"It's so great to share that time with your child, without cell phones and other distractions, and to interact with other parents and their children," she said.
Whether parents and children are learning simultaneously or separately, parent education shows kids that, as Geller said, "To be a Jew means to be engaged with Torah, in whatever age-appropriate way. It doesn't stop."
Parent education gives children and adults a common language and helps build Jewish identity.
"You come out of that car, into the building and show your kid that Jewish life is worth your own time," Feinstein said. "That's how you make Jews Jews."
Jane Ulman is a freelance writer who lives in Encino with her husband. She has four sons.