In Our Jewish Home, educators make house calls

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Coming soon to a house in your neighborhood: a personal Jewish educator who will help a family create a Jewish home.

Set for its local premiere in the spring, the nationally recognized pilot program will send facilitators into about 20 homes with young children, from Sonoma County to the Peninsula. In four visits, they will provide one-on-one coaching on how to celebrate Passover, Shabbat and the fall holidays, as well as on mitzvot and Jewish values.

The Bureau of Education-sponsored project, called “Our Jewish Home,” aims to bring Judaism into the house — particularly to those families who are newly affiliated or not affiliated with synagogues. Geared toward families with kids in the 3- to 6-year-old range, it is designed to build Jewish identity at the kitchen-table level, training parents to be teachers.

The goal is “to empower families to take on the Jewish education of their children. I think so many people leave it up to the institutions. This way it’s a partnership,” said Ellen Brosbe, who is coordinating the project for the S.F.-based BJE.

“Since it takes place in the home, we’re hoping [Jewish] observances will take place in the home, helping parents enhance their own Jewish family celebrations.”

“Our Jewish Home” was funded by grants to the BJE’s Jewish Family Education Project from the Covenant Foundation, and the Laura and Gary Lauder Philanthropic Fund of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund.

The program will begin with five institutions, which will each recruit four families, who need not be members. Participating organizations include the Jewish Community Center and Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, Congregation Shir Shalom in Sonoma, Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa and the Albert L. Schultz JCC in Palo Alto. The cost to participants is $100.

For the many Jewish parents who did not get a thorough foundation in Judaism themselves, or may be new to Judaism, the program can lay the groundwork. It is also designed to strengthen the Jewish community, one home at a time.

Facilitators, who will begin their home visits before Passover, will visit the families, bring in kits and activities for parents and children, and offer pointers on how to celebrate. But it will be a dialogue, not a lecture, according to Brosbe, who compares the facilitator to a life coach.

Jewish families “just need that extra connection, a buddy,” said Brosbe, who grew up in a secular home herself. “They don’t always have the help of family and friends. A shul can provide it, but many families are not affiliated.”

When the program was first launched in St. Louis in 1994, it was acclaimed as the first Jewish community-based program to send educators directly into the home, receiving a two-year $130,000 grant from the Covenant Foundation. It began with about 20 to 25 families a year, picked up steam and spread to communities in North America and Israel. Vicky Kelman, who heads the BJE’s Family Education Project, had been following the success of the St. Louis program and wrote the grant to help fund it locally.

Liz Jaroslow, a mother of young children, and a longtime Jewish educator will be one of the facilitators.

“What’s nice about the program is that it can be individualized to the family because every family is unique,” said Jaroslow, former director of the preschool at San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom. She also works with Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco as well as the BJE.

“In every other family education program I’ve been involved in … it’s always been an objective to increase Jewish observance in the home. What’s nice about this is that it begins in the home — the family’s home.”

Stephanie Levin, Berkeley Hillel administrator, and an educator at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and the Coastside Jewish Community in Half Moon Bay, found out about the program through Kelman. Its unusual approach intrigued her to take on another teaching stint.

What’s different, Levin said, is its person-to-person approach. Many programs “focus on bringing people together to form community and helping them to explore Judaism as a group, which I think is important. Judaism is an organized religion, intentionally. At the same time I think the larger world of the Jewish community can be intimidating for those who haven’t found their specific niche yet.

“I anticipate that ‘Our Jewish Home’ will allow these families to have a taste of Judaism and Jewish education in a place that’s comfortable for them — the home — and then reach out into the larger community. It’s a different first step.”

Our Jewish Home” is recruiting participants, and interested staffers can also apply. Information: Ellen Brosbe, (415)-751-6983, ext. 153, or [email protected].

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].