New program gets family together for dinner, Jewishly

What were family mealtimes like when you were young? Did your family have any dinner table traditions? What makes family dinner fun?

On Nov. 3, a small group of families with fifth-graders gathered at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley to discuss these and other questions at the launch of “Home for Dinner”— a pilot program being run at three local synagogues.

The program was created by longtime Bay Area Jewish community educator Vicky Kelman in conjunction with Hazon, and is being funded by a $70,000 grant from the Covenant Foundation.

Preparing tabouleh are (from left) Eliana Rosen-Bloom, Anna Portnoy and David Gales photo/courtesy of renna khuber-haberPreparing tabouleh are (from left) Eliana Rosen-Bloom, Anna Portnoy and David Gales photo/courtesy of renna khuber-haber

Home for Dinner aims to help over-scheduled, busy families make evening mealtime a priority by asking them to have one more meal together each week than they usually do.

Research shows that regular family dinners aren’t just nourishing — they’re linked to academic success, better nutrition, healthier relationships, and keeping teens away from alcohol, cigarettes and drugs.

When putting together the program at Beth El, Temple Sinai in Oakland and Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, Kelman made a discovery: Many Jewish families are already having regular family dinners. So Home for Dinner, at least in its initial run for the 2011-12 school year, will seek to reinforce that habit while emphasizing the Jewish values inherent in family mealtime.

“The Home for Dinner program is only the wrapping paper,” Kelman said. “The gift that is being given is a connection to Jewish tradition and a set of concepts related to sitting down at the table with other people. It’s a whole approach to strengthening the community through strengthening the family.”

Chopping garlic are (from left) Eli Kane, Sam Gray and Halle Steckel photo/courtesy of renna khuber-haber

At Beth El, eight families have committed to planning, cooking and sitting down to regular meals at the dinner table, and they’ll be attending five dinners with accompanying activities at the synagogue. Home for Dinner isn’t centered on Shabbat, so parents can choose whatever nights they want to focus on for getting the family together at the table.

The program is guided, in part, by a religious school curriculum designed by Hazon. Called “Min ha-aretz,” or “From the Earth,” it emphasizes building community through food and other topics such as food justice, gratitude, manners, taking care of one’s body and taking care of the Earth.

“These are all Jewish values that flow from the dinner table,” said Kelman.

Temple Sinai and Kol Shofar will host their own dinners in the next two weeks, to get the program launched at their synagogues, and like Beth El they each will host five activity-laden dinners. Hazon will track the program, noting what works and what doesn’t, and perhaps offer Home for Dinner to a few other communities nationally next year. Hazon also plans to integrate insights gained from the program into curriculum for its national Jewish Food Education Network.

As part of Home for Dinner, kids will keep journals at home to document the family meals, and families will follow Hazon-created guidebooks on how to incorporate Jewish blessings for food into meals and how to develop their own traditions.

Organizers say fifth-graders were chosen for the program because they’re able to grasp the concepts intellectually, but they’re not yet swamped with homework in the evenings. “It’s also a year when we are building community among the families before they launch into the b’nai mitzvah experience,” said Debra Sagan Massey, director of education at Beth El.

Howie Rosen and son Jonah review a reading for the after-dinner discussion. photo/jessica c. kraft

The program addresses vital social issues for today’s family, Massey said. “The school week is a rushed time when kids and families have work and school and then after-school activities and homework. Creating an opportunity for everyone to come and sit down — I think parents do feel challenged by that,” she said. “At my house, I find it hard to get everyone to eat at the same time.”

In the Beth El multipurpose room, families were served a vegan Mediterranean meal, including red lentil soup, hummus, tabouli and baklava, all prepared by their 10- and 11-year-olds.

Beth El religious school teacher Elianna Friedman, who led the young cooks in the kitchen, was particularly excited about their reaction to the

vegetables: “Some of them had never seen spaghetti squash before, and they thought it was really fun to make,” she said. “Kids don’t usually like vegetables, but when they are the ones who made them, they love them.”

Kids whet their appetites before dinner by listing their favorite Jewish foods. photo/jessica c. kraft

The after-dinner activity prompted parents and kids to consider a wide variety of contemporary food issues by looking at comic strips, Talmud passages and sociological studies. After reading an article, one group of kids said they would indeed be happy to eat carrots and apples from vending machines, rather than soda and chips. Another group pondered a cartoon in which each person at the table had a different food preference (gluten free, vegan, kosher, low-salt, dairy free). What could you possibly cook that would satisfy each one?

Many of the families at the event said they already held regular family dinners, but that the program could offer other benefits.

“I think Home for Dinner is going to help my daughter get more excited about healthy cooking,” said Judy Appel.

Her daughter, Talia Appel-Bernstein, 10, agreed, but also said that she is looking forward to having more fun at mealtimes. “Dinner is best when it gets silly, like when my brother laughed so hard that milk poured out his nose!” she said, smiling broadly.