Ideas for engaging young Jewish families

After the chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America, Michael Siegal, pledged to raise $1 billion to support tuition-free Jewish preschool, there’s been discussion about how offering tuition-free Jewish preschool might help encourage young families to choose a Jewish preschool over a non-Jewish preschool and, in the long run, this might serve as a launching pad to continued Jewish affiliation.

While some say this isn’t financially feasible, proponents of this idea say it is possible it could succeed if done the right way, such as offering a first-year stipend for a family’s first child.

Since innovation is such a popular buzzword in today’s Jewish community, I thought I’d throw in some ideas of my own for attracting families with preschool-age children.

1. Baby-sitting brigade
Some organizations offer baby-sitting for their evening programs, which I think is fantastic. However, to get out of the house with young children, parents still have to feed them, dress them (which includes finding “the other shoe”) and get them into the car before the program starts. Then afterward, they often have a cranky, tired child on their hands and a bedtime routine to go through after they get home (if the kids don’t fall asleep in the car, which never seems to happen when you most want it to).
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a baby-sitting brigade available to stay at home with the children? Baby-sitters trained in first aid, CPR and how to navigate a kosher kitchen could keep the bedtime routine intact and parents could enjoy the evening’s program knowing their children are home snug in their pajamas hearing their PJ Library book before bed. Temple youth groups could design it as a fundraiser, to help raise programming funds or to help save for their Israel trip.

2. Saturday evening programs
Many preschool parents can still remember when Saturday night was different from a weeknight so they may be willing to deal with the stress of leaving the house (see above) for the chance of a fun night out. So during the times of year when Shabbat ends early, a Havdalah program  is ideal. The ceremony is short and sweet (and there’s a flame, which is an attention-getter for little ones with a short attention span). The program doesn’t need anything fancy – the Havdalah service provides a Jewish experience, then all that’s needed is some snacks. Maybe some toys, like Legos, cars or puzzles, but really the children will likely just run around the room. This will give an opportunity for the parents to sit around and schmooze, and maybe have a little wine. Ideally, the event should be held somewhere – like a synagogue social hall – where parents can still keep an eye on their kids while chatting. This type of event helps build camaraderie between parents and helps generate warm, fun feelings about synagogue for the children (how this translates to learning how to sit quietly during services will need to be addressed another time).

3. Programs that require little parental effort
I think one of the most brilliant programs for preschool families out there is PJ Library. The only effort it takes to participate is to sign up online, then walk to the mailbox at least once a month. With very little effort (that doesn’t require finding any lost shoes), families get Jewish content in their home that can lead to different Jewish experiences (making a tzedakah box, cooking a recipe found in back of some of the books, discussing concepts addressed in the books or learning more about a holiday). Another idea is programs that promote casual Shabbat dinners or holiday celebrations with other families with young children (sort of like ShabbatLuck for families).

I think that most Jewish parents are interested in teaching their children about Judaism and may be interested in learning more on an adult-level, too, but it just takes so much effort to get out of the house (see above). I do realize that, as a parent of three young children, these programs may seem a little self-serving (and are partly in jest), I think once a few years have passed and everyone’s getting a good night’s sleep, then these same families – and children — will feel part of the Jewish community and be willing to participate more actively.

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