Class is in session: And not just for kids; parents are learning, too

Class is in session: And not just for kids; parents are learning, too

The Jewish parents’ traditional role in their children’s religious school education has always been to drop them off at the doors of the synagogue, and to pick them up two hours later.
As that role changes, some parents are finding that they must now park their cars and come inside.
“Family education” is the buzz phrase for an education model that places parents in the classroom, along with their children, on a regular and ongoing basis.
The idea is finding some traction. Synagogues across the country are experimenting with the model to some degree, according to Lisa Langer, education specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism.
“There is a huge spectrum of family education,” Langer said. “There are many congregations trying to do something on that spectrum.”
On “the intense end of the spectrum,” Langer said, is Temple Shalom, in Wheeling, W. Va., which has re-configured its religious school to include parents as students every week with their kids in grades K to 8.
The Temple Shalom model was born out of necessity, said its rabbi, Beth Jacowitz Chottiner.
“We have a shortage of teachers, and a small student population — 10 kids spread between the different grades,” Chottiner said. “I was trying to figure out how we could provide the best education for our students. I had conversations with educators across the country, and the idea of the family model kept coming up.”
Each Sunday morning, Chottiner meets with the children in grades six through eight for 30-minute lessons in Hebrew. Then, parents join the class for an hour of Judaics. For grades K to 4, Chottiner teaches the children Hebrew for 30 minutes, then parents join in the class for 30 minutes of Judaics.
“The parents are really enjoying it,” Chottiner said. “Being in the class with the children allows them to continue the conversations throughout the day. Attendance has been good. And the kids say they like it better than the old model. Parents serve as positive Jewish role models when their children see them as active learners.”
Parents attending the classes say they appreciate the value of learning along with their children, and then applying the lessons learned to situations occurring in their lives.
“I’ve learned a lot, participating with my child,” said Amy Humphrey, the parent of a sixth-grader.
After learning about the different levels of tzedaka, Humphrey said, she and her daughter encountered someone on the side of the road, asking for money. “That led to a conversation between my daughter and me about the different ways we could help. We went through the levels we had learned, and talked about it.
“Look, you can drop off and pick up your children from religious school,” Humphrey continued, “and when you ask them what they did, they will tell you ‘nothing.’ This format allows me to know what they’re learning.”
Attending religious school with a child sends the child the message that Jewish learning is important, said Janice Meister, a parent of a sixth-grader at Temple Shalom.
“It shows the child you’re interested in it, and that you’re more than willing to be there for them,” Meister said.
At Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, which has a larger enrollment, Spiegel Religious School Director Fern Reinbeck has integrated parent participation into the Conservative synagogue’s more formal religious school to benefit the parents, as well as the children.
“I wanted to start intergenerational learning to make it easier for parents and their children to engage in discussions and conversations about Judaic topics at home,” she said. “Maybe there are things the parents missed out on in their own religious education, or maybe they didn’t have any religious education.”
Reinbeck introduced what she calls “family interactive homework.” She said it is an effort to take “baby steps” toward intergenerational learning.
“I created the interactive piece because I didn’t want to jump into the parent education model,” she said. “But I had to start building bridges.”
After introducing the family homework projects, Reinbeck began a parent/child education program for each grade level, bringing the parents into the synagogue for specific programs in which to participate along with their children.
In the Reform movement, there are more than two dozen congregations across the country that have some sort of ongoing family education component to their religious school programs, and Langer recently convened a network to provide support for these family models. Family schools are used in both small and large congregations.
At Rodef Shalom Congregation’s Jacob Religious School, director Susan Loether is using the family model in the Family Hebrew Program.
“Our goal is the same — one parent and one child combination weekly for Hebrew,” she said. “The program is set up for one hour of class each Sunday, and the parent/child team is supposed to study together for an hour during the week at home.”
The parent/child team works together, and once they have begun the process of learning together, “they usually continue [the program] for all four years of Hebrew school,” Loether said. “Parents become close friends, the families share their simchas together, bar and bat mitzva.  This year, we added a conversational Hebrew program for the parent/child teams who did not want to stop studying together once the students were in seventh grade. The program has been hugely successful.”
But there are drawbacks to the model, according to Langer.
“I think it is tremendously meaningful and has enormous potential,” she said. “It’s good academically, and good for community building, but it’s hard to find and train teachers, and curriculum is virtually nonexistent. Most programs have to create new learning materials every year. Twenty-five family schools [across the country] are not enough of a market for publishers to publish materials.
“Plenty of congregations do well with family schools,” she continued. “But it is not right for every family, and it is not right for every congregation.”
But if a congregation and its families make the effort to develop a working family model work, Langer said the results can be rewarding.
 “Families tend to fragment with their time, which is one of the reasons the family school can be so powerful,” she said. “It is an identified time and place where families come together as a family, doing something important, doing something meaningful, and engaging in a community with other families. It can be a real gift, and a real opportunity.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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