Time for “our big deal,” the 22-year-old instructor shouted inside the suburban Boston My Gym play space. “It’s space flights!”
Asher Misiph, an 18-month-old, grinned with glee as he “flew” in a plastic blue airplane across a zip line and back, with a hand from the peppy instructor.
It was almost sunset on a Friday in late October. This was a Jewish event, but there was nothing remotely Jewish about it, except the religion of the participants. The handful of families, with children ranging in age from 14 months to 5 years, came to the free class at the invitation of a parent hired by Boston’s Jewish Family Network to connect more families to the Jewish community. The children danced and bounced on trampolines as their parents socialized.
The families — some interfaith and most unaffiliated — are the target group that many Jewish organizations are reaching out to more than ever before. In the past few years, Jewish federations in New York, Chicago and Boston have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars on programs for first-time parents with children up to age 5, hoping to persuade families to become more Jewishly involved. More than half of the country’s 157 Jewish federations — often as partners with synagogues, Jewish community centers and Jewish social service agencies — are working with new families. Most programs are held in secular places and cost families little or nothing.
“It’s happening from Seattle to Miami to New York to San Diego,” said Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America. “This whole concept of engaging young families in Jewish life is critical to our future in the Jewish world.”
Although some of the programs have Jewish content, many, like the one at the Boston-area My Gym, do not. Organization leaders say they are responding to what first-time Jewish parents said in focus groups and surveys that they wanted: to make Jewish friends where they are the most comfortable — a playground, a café, a home. No synagogues, please.
“Going to a temple right now and spending all that money is not a draw for me,” said Asher’s mother, Stefani Misiph, who lives in Medway, a western Boston suburb sparsely populated by Jews. “To me, it’s more about connections.”
The families that the organizations most want to reach are often the hardest both to find and to persuade to start thinking about making Jewish choices — for example, interfaith families torn over whether to raise their children Jewish. If Jewish organizations do not attract them, however, secular programs, like Boston’s Isis Parenting centers, will.
Wooing more young families to the Jewish community is a bit of a tap dance, said Mark I. Rosen, a researcher and lecturer at Brandeis University who acts as a consultant to multiple Jewish federations on early childhood initiatives.
“Too much Judaism scares them off. Too little, and what’s the difference between what you do and Isis?” Rosen said.
The best examples are programs with five minutes of Jewish content and then a block of time for just socializing, he said.
The idea of Jewish-sponsored activities with zero Jewish content disturbs Cathy Rolland, the Union for Reform Judaism’s early childhood specialist.
“The concept of what I owe to the Jewish people is getting lost,” Rolland said.
That Jewish organizations act to do more with young families, though, is critical, Rolland, Rosen and others said.
Jews are waiting longer to get married and are having fewer children, according to a report put out by Zero to Three, a national early childhood organization. And according to population surveys, at least 50% of Jewish marriages are interfaith. In the past, families lived in predominantly Jewish communities, and social life often revolved around synagogues. Now, partly because of economic issues, more families are settling in suburbs where few Jews have lived in the past, making it hard to have a sense of Jewish community.
“Children grow up with a very weak Jewish identity if we don’t do this kind of thing,” Rosen said.
Jewish federations are smart to invest in these families now, he added. “The donor base is drying up. If more and more families are not choosing Jewish to raise their kids, where is that pipeline going to come from?”
Federation officials in New York, Boston and Chicago say that their motivation is not fear of fewer donors.
“This is not a fundraising strategy,” said Alisa Rubin Kurshan, a vice president at UJA-Federation of New York. “This is a strategy to create the most vibrant, creative Jewish community that ever lived.”
The New York federation has spent $540,000 since last year on programs for young families. It hired the transdenominational website My Jewish Learning to create Kveller.com, a website for parents of Jewish children, and in December it awarded grants for a variety of programs in Brooklyn, including music classes with Hebrew vocabulary for Israeli families and classes on Sabbath meal preparation for expectant parents.
“We’re not just interested in the kids learning baby signs; we’re interested in the parents hanging out together on Rosh Hashanah and having a potluck in the park,” said Rebecca Spilke, a New York federation official overseeing the activities of young families.
The Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago is spending $700,000 on young family outreach for 2010–11 — double the amount it spent five years ago — according to Steven Nasatir, the federation’s president.
The money supports preschool scholarships; a Shalom Baby program, which delivers information packets to new parents; communitywide Jewish-themed events at children’s museums and monthly JUF Book Buddies storytelling and singing programs at local bookstores.
Denver’s Jewish community, which has offered young family programs for years because of heavy support from the grantmaking organization the Rose Community Foundation is increasing its efforts even more. Its research shows that many Denver-area young Jewish families are unaware of existing programs, so the foundation now is getting out the word differently. In the fall of 2009, the foundation, working with 29 Jewish organizations, launched MazelTot.org, which advertises events and classes and offers discounts on things like Mommy & Me classes in Jewish settings, baby-naming ceremonies and preschool tuition.
Boston’s multi-step approach — which started a little more than a year ago — is supported by the city’s federation, known as Combined Jewish Philanthropies. It is spending $300,000 in 2010–11 for new programs based in suburbs where Jewish institutions are not plentiful. Jewish Family Network, a joint partnership between the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston and two social service agencies based in suburbs, is a part of that work, and hopes to attract more unaffiliated families to the Jewish community through grassroots efforts.
The first step in the Boston-area approach, similar to what other cities do, is Welcome Baby, in-person visits by volunteers or social workers to Jewish mothers within the first six months of the birth. The mother receives a tote filled with gifts, including a Jewish-themed book and information about the local Jewish community. Mothers are then invited to gatherings with other new parents. As the parent connects more to the Jewish community, the hope is that the entire family will attend communitywide events, such as apple picking on Sukkot.
While many cities rely primarily on Internet sites to inform parents, JFN also hires parents as “connectors” to build e-mail lists of new parents and use word-of-mouth and social networking sites to announce meet-ups.
Amy Kohen, a parent connector for one group of Boston’s western suburbs, hosted a recent gathering at Sweet Bites, a local café.
“I always worry that no one is going to come,” Kohen said as she sat there at the 11:30 a.m. start time bouncing her 11-month-old daughter, Ellie, on her lap. By 11:45 a.m., four other mothers were there with their children. Over coffee and pastries, they discussed dealing with tantrums and picky eaters, and how to juggle part-time work with parenting.
“Even though it’s Jewish,” Kohen said, “it’s not like we sit here talking about Torah.”
Valerie Sales Geary, 38, who attended with her 18-month-old, Joshua, said she liked that “there’s not a religious part.” She is the Jewish partner in an interfaith marriage.
“We’re going to raise him kind of exposed to both,” she said.
Jennifer Cheron, 33, who brought her 2-year-old son, Michael, said she and her husband are both Jewish and plan on joining a Conservative synagogue.
She grew up in Jericho, on Long Island. “When I was 10, I thought everybody was Jewish,” she said, laughing. But now, where she works and lives, Jews are no longer such a visible group.
“The Jewish content is Jewish community,” said Malka Young, who is a manager at the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, a partner in the Boston-area’s Jewish Family Network.
Although it is too early to gauge the success of these programs, anecdotal evidence, like a St. Louis group of parents visiting Jewish preschools en masse after being in a playgroup together, seems to suggest that the programs are serving their purpose.
And a pair of parents attending the My Gym gathering in Medfield exemplifies what Young and others want to see: lasting friendships between Jews.
Misiph and Jen Newberg first met a little less than a year ago at Little Wigglers, a movement class for Jewish mothers and their babies. Both in their early 30s, the mothers grew up in predominantly Jewish areas but live outside them now. They bonded with each other and with others in the class, and now they get together almost every week. Are group Sabbath dinners in their future? They don’t know. But Judaism is.
Linda K. Wertheimer, a Lexington, Mass.-based writer, is working on a memoir about grief and the Jewish faith.