Teaching Judaism is family enterprise, educators say

If you're a parent, the first thing Vicky Kelman wants you to learn about Judaism is how to park.

Instead of doing the traditional Sunday school child drop-off, the Jewish family education specialist wants parents to park their cars once in a while and spend the afternoon learning with their children.

Kelman and other Jewish educators are promoting a national trend known as "family education," which aims to bring the entire family into the synagogue and send them home — with a richer sense of Jewish spirituality and family ritual.

Throughout the Bay Area, teachers, lay leaders and rabbis have been coming up with new programs to encourage family education for the past few years. Several of the most successful such programs were discussed Sunday at the conference "Family Matter: Families Matter?" sponsored by the Family Education Project of the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education.

About 100 educators attended the daylong conference at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. Their children were also invited.

"If we're serious about education, how can we ask people to leave their families at home yet another Sunday?" asked Kelman, who directs the Jewish Family Education Project.

With about 25 children on hand, Kelman used the teachers' families to demonstrate family education techniques. In one seminar, parents and children sprawled on the rug with markers and paper, answering the question: What can we do to be more like God?

Elizabeth Tacherra, 10, wrote, "Be kind" and "Sing." Drawing alongside her mother, Susan Hilsenrad-Tacherra, a lay leader at the San Geronimo Jewish Congregation, she said, "The wind sings. I love to sing." Her mother wrote, "Love yourself, create beautiful art, help sick people or poor people."

After completing the project, Kelman asked families to hold hands and whisper, then shout, what they planned to do when they got home to be more like God.

Her philosophy is simple, she told the group: "Ask a great question and get out of the way."

Parents, she said, should be equal partners with schools, synagogues and Jewish community centers, instead of just saying , "I'll pay them, and they'll make my child Jewish."

Keynote speaker Kathleen Chesto, an author and lecturer who promotes family education among Catholic families, told the group that the seeds of family education already exist.

"Every time you pick up a crying baby, you have taught the most important lesson about prayer: When you call out, somebody answers. If you don't believe that, you won't pray," Chesto explained.

"That's an experience of God. You've given it."

The goal of the conference was to expand on that lesson, encouraging families to mark rituals and learn Torah together, according to Kelman.

Several successful family programs were highlighted at the conference.

At Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa, a community organic garden has already produced 400 pounds of food for a local AIDS food bank, cornstalks for the sukkah and a reason for families to work together.

"It's nice to see people that normally don't hang out in the congregation come and work in the garden," says congregant David Carson, who presented a workshop about the garden project along with Rabbi Jonathan Slater. "This was a long dream for me."

Joanne Greene, a lay leader at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, told participants about projects like the Jewish Family Video Club, and another program that groups three families together for home Shabbat celebrations. That program is now in its fourth year and "it makes a big synagogue smaller," Greene explained.

At Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos, a family program called Shabbaton now boasts 65 families.

As for the long-range effects of this type of schooling, Beth Am's education director Rabbi Laura Novak-Winer says it's too soon to know exactly what the results will be. She hopes, however, that when parents park instead of driving away, they will teach children that Judaism is a desirable destination.

"When children see their parents find Jewish education valuable," said Novak-Winer, "they will consider it valuable themselves."