CJLL education strategy: Involve parents, volunteers

If your children think they know more than you do, don't be too quick to disagree. They may be right. They even have a well-placed ally for the proposition: Rabbi Glenn Karonsky, executive director of the Center for Jewish Living and Learning of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.

"Oftentimes we're confronted with the reality that children of today know more about the facts of living a Jewish life than do parents," says Karonsky.

In fact, Karonsky sees this as the challenge for the future in Jewish education — how to educate parents so home and family become sources of Jewish knowledge.

The first step is to involve religious and day-school volunteers, most of whom are parents, in educational planning, an arena previously reserved for professionals.

To that end, lay leaders have been invited to participate in the CJLL's Sunday, Feb. 9 education conference, Getting to the Core, at Oakland's Temple Sinai. Until now, this semiannual conference, which features a wide variety of workshops, Torah study sessions and exhibitors, had been restricted to professionals.

"The challenge is so immense that volunteers and professionals must join hands and work together to confront the issues as well as to discuss some answers," says Karonsky.

Riva Gambert, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the East Bay federation, hails bringing together educational professionals and lay leadership. She expects the synergy will stimulate teachers and spark lay participants to increase their knowledge of Judaism.

"The conference is to build up energy," says Gambert, a teacher herself, who expects the lay educators will bring new energy and enthusiasm to the conference. "Energy is transferable. Teachers who are energized are better teachers."

While today's programs are more dynamic, the approach to Jewish education hasn't changed in the past 50 years, Karonsky says. The basic assumption — that religious-school education supplements what children learn at home — has not changed.

"A lot of people in my generation were turned off to the religious-school paradigm. Jewish education ended with the bar mitzvah," says Karonsky, explaining why many of today's parents lack basic Jewish knowledge. "The notion that Hebrew and religious school is a supplement to Jewish education in the home has been turned on its side."

The orientation of religious schools has to change, he says. The definition of "client" must be expanded to incorporate the whole family — and the definition of "family" is changing rapidly as well.

Program changes geared toward these ends might include family retreats and campouts. Karonsky also envisions assembling and distributing holiday packets or educational kits on how to celebrate Jewish holidays in the home and how to follow up on what children learn in school.

With many adults returning to give their own Jewish learning a second chance, the time may be right for a major change in the approach to family education. Many of these adults abandoned their Jewish education in their early teens. Others are Jews by choice who are interested in learning about Jewish life and heritage, Karonsky says.

"Every Jewish community now proudly boasts that Jewish education is the No. 1 priority of Jewish life," he says. "It's time for professionals and volunteer leadership to join hands and address some of the more profound issues."