Family education ventures flourish with seed grants

"I'm very, very pleased," said Vicky Kelman, director of the Jewish Family Education Project, a joint project of the S.F.-based BJE and the Jewish Community Federation Endowment Fund.

Last year, Kelman asked Bay Area educators to propose family education projects for their schools, congregations and Jewish Community Centers.

Twenty-one responded to the call. All of them received family education seed grants.

For some schools and congregations, the grant helped jump start new programming, adding to existing curricula. But others, like newly formed Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto, depended on the funds to get their programming off the ground.

"It's half our education budget," said Tricia Vinson, the temple's family education project coordinator.

A Reform synagogue that formed about a year ago, Etz Chayim operates on a shoestring. The congregation doesn't own a building and only recently hired a rabbi. However, it does have an active school for children in grades kindergarten through third and their families.

Twice a month, 16 families meet on Shabbat for an afternoon of Torah study. Parents and children learn together for an hour then separate. Kids work on related projects. Adults engage in Torah-based discussions. The two groups meet for havdallah at the end.

In addition, families gather once a month on Sundays for brunch and holiday programming. The congregation holds a monthly potluck dinner and prayer discussion before Shabbat services, and a monthly adult education program on Tuesdays.

The synagogue opted for a family program with multiple components for several reasons.

"We are a very family-focused congregation. Everyone who has joined wants to be involved and knowledgeable. But a lot of us don't have firm Jewish backgrounds," Vinson said. "We are anxious to learn and want to learn with our kids. We want to lead more Jewish lives but we need the tools."

Meanwhile, other schools, like Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame and the Jewish Day School of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa, used their seed grants to develop family reading programs. Borrowing concepts from family reading programs in Detroit and Boston, both schools supplemented their libraries with new titles like "God's Paintbrush" and "Old Noah's Elephants."

Children at both schools check out one book each week along with a packet containing a story synopsis, vocabulary words, topics for discussion and activity ideas and materials.

Both programs also hold schoolwide storytelling events and holiday celebrations during the year.

Geared toward kindergarten children, Peninsula Temple Sholom's program is called Sefer Safari. It includes a zebra-painted book cart, animal stickers, a book bag and projects like baking a cookie map of Israel and marking its cities with chocolate chips.

The Jewish Day School of Sonoma County gears its program, the Reading Mishpacha (family), to grades K through three and includes 90 new titles.

But in addition to completing projects listed on the activity cards, Reading Mishpacha families also decorate quilt squares with their names and favorite books. And once a year each family presents a book to the school and share its message by performing a puppet show, building a diorama or writing a poem.

Rabbi Andy Straus, educator at Peninsula Temple Sholom, said reading programs for families are a natural because "parents read to their kids anyway. Why not make their reading Jewish? This is the real key to family education."