Curriculum creates family room for Jewish learning

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

The family room is undergoing a conceptual redecoration. No new couches or end tables. This redesign is strictly Jewish, aimed at creating a place where families can get together informally to share meals and learn about Judaism.

It's called "Family Room." Drafted by S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education family educator Vicky Kelman, the program and accompanying curriculum is the most recent sketch in the blueprint for Jewish family education.

Neither a chavurah (prayer or study group) nor a classroom-based curriculum, Family Room is a step-by-step guide summarizing the two-year pilot of monthly meetings and activities undertaken by families at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa and Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City.

The Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life in Los Angeles recently published the manual, giving congregations nationwide the tools for building their own "family rooms," and fostering communal and spiritual bonds between families.

"It's a handbook for leaders," Kelman said. "But once it's out there, lay people can buy it, take it to their rabbis and say `We want this. Help us do it.'"

Kelman's 250-page guide provides this help. Kelman maps out a plan, month by month, and even estimates costs for running the program (about $150 a year for supplies, postage and photocopying).

The curriculum suggests group size (six to eight families), age appropriateness (kindergartners through sixth-graders), location (the family room of participants' homes) and a potluck meal. It includes text study and art, music and theater exercises centered around the yearly themes of "God's Many Gifts" and "Created in God's Image."

Kelman insists at the outset that Family Room is not intended to be a chavurah .

"In some communities, the word chavurah connotes elitism and separatism from the congregation," she explains in the text. It also "connotes a self-led group."

In searching for a better term for each gathering, she settled on the word mifgash (meet or encounter), as "meeting sounded too serious and businesslike, while the word get-together sounded too informal. Using the Hebrew term, which has no prior connotation for most people, seems to avoid both pitfalls."

Ellen Brosbe, educator and Family Room co-leader with Rabbi Jonathan Slater at Beth Ami, said Kelman's curriculum succeeds on both those points.

"People are looking for community and this went beyond a chavurah. It had the learning component but also established a family feeling," she said.

"Leading it in people's homes can be logistically tricky, but it makes it more personal."

For example, when grandparents of two of the children in the Family Room group died, Brosbe watched families come together and ask, "What can we do?"

"They started asking questions, and that to me is an indicator of success," Brosbe said.

To foster that nurturing environment, Brosbe began each meeting with family announcements. Similarly, at Netivot Shalom, Kelman led participants in prayers to commemorate family milestones.

For example, when 5-year-old Noah Schnur of Berkeley wrote his name for the first time during a Family Room program, "We all said the Shehechiyanu [prayer recited on first-time occasions]. It was really nice," recalled his mother Denise Moyes-Schnur.

Noah was a bit young, almost 3, when the program began. Moyes-Schnur and her husband, Ken Schnur, joined the group with daughter Emma, now 7, in mind. However, Noah, "really grew into the program," she said.

A few weeks ago the family went to Noah's Bagels and saw a friend. Noah "yelled, `Hey, there's a Family Room dad.' He didn't think `Larry.' He thought `Family Room.'"

The opportunity for socializing with other Jewish families in an intimate setting attracted Moyes-Schnur, who said she has "a Jewish home." The family keeps kosher and celebrates Shabbat together.

For Janine Bamberger of Santa Rosa, Family Room boosted her already strong Jewish identity.

"I just recently converted," the Beth Ami congregant said. "I'd been living a Jewish life [with husband Jules and children Jerzy, 12, and Jalena, 10] for a long time though."

Bamberger decided to convert in order to share in her children's upcoming bar and bat mitzvah celebrations as a Jew. Yet "the more I studied, the more I realized [being Jewish] was important."

This personal discovery, at least in part, motivated her to suggest Family Room to her husband and children.

"The idea of sharing time with Jewish families, besides going to synagogue or a Jewish event appealed — talking freely, including our kids in our lives," she said.

"We've always said Shabbat blessings, gone to synagogue," Bamberger said. "But this gave us an awareness of our family and what we like about our family. It gave us a sense of who we are."