Spielberg grant helps kids discover and share heritage

"Sharing of family stories is a critical element in bringing the family closer and bringing generations together. It links parent and child with generations before and generations in the future," said Vicky Kelman, director of the Jewish Family Education Project. "Stories become the glue that cements a family. Stories are part of a child's identity and help develop a sense of pride."

Officials at Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation agree.

The Los Angeles foundation recently granted the Jewish Family Education Project of the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education $144,000 for its new Family Folklore Project. The BJE must secure matching grants for the four-year proposal.

The Family Folklore Project picks up where the BJE's Family History Video Project leaves off.

Eight years old and used by a dozen Bay Area religious schools, the Family History Video Project is a 10-session curriculum for sixth-grade students. Working with their own relatives, students research an aspect of family history — from immigration paths to secret recipes from the old country — and videotape their presentations.

Because the Family History Video Project's curriculum "doesn't involve the family to the extent it could," Kelman said, the Family Folklore Project goes further. It extends that curriculum to seventh, eighth and ninth grades, one year at a time, while building a more active role for students' parents.

"If we ask them to make another challah cover, they're not so interested," Kelman said. "But family storytelling engages people on a deep level. Telling a story and passing it on captures everyone."

In seventh grade, student participants will assemble family memory books, showing how they "ultimately remember their families — their parents, friends, aunts, uncles, vacations, holidays, turning points in their lives. It's their stories through their eyes," Kelman said.

Meanwhile, parents write ethical wills, documenting all the intangible lessons they'd like to teach their children. Both pieces are woven into bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies.

Eighth-grade students and their families will research Jewish community and synagogue histories via interviews as well as online and library research. In addition, they will choose a project to "make a lasting contribution to their synagogue," such as re-covering prayerbooks, building an ark for the junior congregation, planting a garden or painting a room, Kelman said.

In their final year, ninth-graders and their parents will link up with members of other ethnic and religious groups in their areas to share family traditions, open up dialogue and learn about each other.

Each school year will close with a community Family Folklore Festival for all grades. Sixth-graders will screen their videos. Other grades will display family trees, photographs and heirlooms. Meanwhile, family traditions will be celebrated through music, food, dance and storytelling.

A final component of the program is a family folklore album created from the interactive computer programs "We Make Memories" and "Share With Me a Story."

"We Make Memories" is a family album, viewed on computer, spanning four generations of Jewish women. Viewers click on faces to hear them tell their own stories. After viewing and hearing this, families can create their own computer portraits, including photos and histories, with "Share with Me a Story" software.

Both programs will be installed at the Jewish Community Library for a month and will be available to the Jewish community.

Kelman is hoping to kick off the Family Folklore Project in August.

"There are many ways to go" with the framework of the Family Folklore Project, Kelman said. "But ultimately it's about building community and enriching the feeling of belonging to the Jewish people.

"There's not one Jewish story. There are thousands, millions. So many different models — blended, divorced, adopted, multicultural. It's important to know them all."