For new parents, having their first child can be scary, stressful and utterly stupefying.
Westside Jewish Community Center hopes it will be a little less so thanks to Jewish Baby University, a five-week class designed to prepare people for what parenthood is really like.
The program, which launched this spring and begins its second session July 28, is open to anyone expecting his or her first child. It incorporates Jewish themes and teaches parents how to plan, in both a practical and spiritual function, for their incoming son or daughter.
“The class is attractive to people who have a Jewish background but need a reminder and to those who really don’t know where to start,” said Lauren Friedman, program coordinator of the Westside JCC. “This is their starting point into Jewish life.”
Jewish Baby University is based on existing programs at Jewish community centers in Phoenix and Denver and funded by a grant from the Maurice Amado Foundation. It’s taught by Rabbi Dalia Samansky, a mother of two from Woodland Hills, who focuses on pastoral work and assists with baby naming ceremonies in Los Angeles.
“As a young mom, it’s a great class to teach,” she said. “[Being Jewish] and parenting are both such sacred journeys in and of themselves.”
Each class incorporates a new theme and features a guest speaker. In terms of Judaism itself, attendees learn about rituals surrounding childbirth, as well as how to create a Jewish home and find a Jewish community in Los Angeles. Although religious practices are discussed, the class is suitable for Jews from all different backgrounds, Friedman said. “It’s more cultural and traditional. We have couples from all the denominations, so we don’t want to impose anything on them.”
Expecting parents find out about financial planning, medical practices involved in pregnancy and birth, and how to adapt emotionally and mentally to being a parent. Speakers in the inaugural session included Dr. Andrew Shpall, a mohel; Yana Katzap-Nackman, a doula; Debra Markovic from JKidLA, a resource of Jewish educational opportunities from BJE-Builders of Jewish Education; and Dan Feinberg, a financial adviser with Wells Fargo Advisors.
Richard Weintraub, a psychologist, visited the class on the last day to talk about how parents can focus on the present and stay calm about the pregnancy. He described how babies, even before they are born, understand when their mothers are at peace or anxious. Weintraub also stressed the importance of physical contact between parents and children.
For the first session of Jewish Baby University, which took place from April 14 to May 24 and ended with a Shabbat dinner, seven couples signed up. One of the students was Genevieve Goldstone, a Jew by Choice who said the class made her feel more secure about the prospect of raising a Jewish child.
“The class validated my knowledge and allowed me and my husband to have some more directed conversations about our practice so that we could be more on the same page going into parenthood,” she said.
Beth Cohan, another participant, said the class was an opportunity to meet other couples who were having their first child. But it was more than that.
“[My husband and I] came from similar backgrounds, but we were interested in figuring out which traditions we’d like to bring into our home,” she said.
It’s especially important to decide upon these traditions before the baby is born, Samansky said, because “a lot of what you do in the beginning becomes habitual. Humans crave routine and normalcy, and to make something like this part of your life and to make decisions ahead of time makes it easier on the family.”
Jewish Baby University was designed by the Westside JCC not only to educate expecting parents, but to connect them and provide a social outlet. Because many of the couples are transplants to Los Angeles, they are still looking for a community and friends, Samansky said.
Johanna Schmidt, who moved to Santa Monica with her husband shortly before joining the class, said, “One of our goals in taking the class was to meet other couples. We’ve done that, so we’re really happy.”
Now that the first session has ended, looking back, Friedman said that it was successful. “We’ve had such great response from the couples. We’re building something that will feed into all the other JCC programs.”
After reviewing evaluations from the initial group, Friedman and Samansky are going to change and update the course as needed. The next session also will be five weeks long and cost $200, just like the original.
Other options for expecting Jewish parents do exist — Cedars-Sinai has single-day, three-hour workshops — but Friedman believes that the comprehensiveness of Jewish Baby University is “filling a really important void.”