Program enters year 3 of nourishing family mealtime

With Thanksgiving and the first night of Hanukkah having been celebrated this week, many families no doubt sat down together for holiday meals. But what about the rest of the year? Are families eating dinner together enough?

A concern over the erosion of family mealtime led to the creation of a pilot program two years ago called Home for Dinner.

The program started small, with three Bay Area synagogues, but has expanded to now include 19 participating organizations — seven in the Bay Area, six in Colorado and six that will be starting n New York in January.

Alan Ross and his children, Danny (left) and Haley, participate in the Home for Dinner program at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley. photo/courtesy deborah sagan-massey

Much of the programming focuses on fifth-graders, but the overall goal of Home for Dinner is to get families to eat dinner together more often, and to enhance and enrich that experience for those who already do eat together regularly.

“In an ideal world, such an initiative might not be needed,” Nigel Savage, executive director of the environmental organization Hazon wrote in a letter about the program. “But in the world that we actually do live in, there’s now a slew of evidence that families indeed need help and encouragement to eat together.”

Hazon developed a curriculum for families and religious educators with a three-year, $70,000 grant from the Covenant Foundation — part of a larger grant to support and nourish Jewish education.

“It’s no surprise that kids and their parents are over-worked and over-stressed,” Hazon staffer Liz Traisin said. “We also repeatedly hear how important it is for families to sit down and have tech-free meals together. The goal of Home for Dinner is to strengthen these mealtimes with rich conversation and Jewish content.”

Poster at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael

Fifth-grade teachers use 10 lessons from the Hazon curriculum, called Min HaAretz (“from the Earth” in Hebrew). Activities and family experiences include text study, storytelling, music, drama, cooking, eating, composting, planting and building.

Vicky Kelman, a veteran Jewish educator in the Bay Area, originally conceived of the program as a tool to engage parents, whose role seemed increasingly to be restricted to dropping kids off and picking them up.

“That’s not enough,” she said. “That doesn’t do it for the child, for the family, or for the Jewish community.”

Participating Bay Area congregations include Rodef Sholom (San Rafael), Beth El (Berkeley), Kol Shofar (Tiburon), Beth Jacob (Redwood City), Sinai (Oakland) and Etz Chayim (Palo Alto). Edah Community, an afterschool program in Berkeley, is another participant.

Kelman said synagogues with strong parent involvement have incorporated the Home for Dinner program quickly and imaginatively. However, she added, those without a structure for parent participation have had to work harder.

As the program catches on, congregations are experimenting with various iterations.

Rodef Sholom, for example, has adapted the Hazon materials for K-6 students and has implemented them into its Kol HaMishpacha program, a whole-family approach to traditional religious school.

“It’s great because we’ve been able to go as a family,” said Kol HaMishpacha participant Lisa Krausz, who has children ages 10 and 7. “Right now, we are learning some of the many blessings in Hebrew for different foods: fruits, fragrant herbs. That was really interesting.”

Other adaptations have included “Home for Dinner in a Day” at Temple Sinai, a “Home for Lunch” program at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, plus some synagogues that have an actual dinner.

Home for Dinner learning lab activity: making sandwiches for a homeless shelter photo/courtesy rodef sholom

Topics that might be discussed at such events include: parents hiding vegetables in mac-and-cheese or other foods in an effort to get their kids to eat healthy foods; issues of food justice and food distribution; questions such as “Is there a difference between eating ‘food’ and eating ‘a meal’?”

Ideally, lessons learned and topics raised are then incorporated into family conversations around the dinner table.

“The family dinner table is a launching pad for crucial life skills and values,” Savage noted, adding that shared family meals also build strong families.

“And strong families, of course, are vital if we’re to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community, and a healthier and more sustainable world for all,” he said.

“I love the flexibility of the program, how nimble it is,” said Jonathan Emanuel, religious education director at Kol Shofar in Tiburon. “We have a lot of working parents. We arranged it so when parents come to pick up their kids, they go right into dinner.”

However, funding fell short of what program planners would have liked. “We wanted every site to have a garden coach and a cooking coach,” Kelman said. “We also wanted a psychologist to provide guidance.”

The grant runs out at the end of this school year, and Hazon does not have word yet on whether it will be extended.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.