Twenty-three years ago, my husband and I were in the delivery room of Belinson Hospital in Israel. In the waiting room were my: parents, brother and his wife, mother in-law, sister in-law, uncle and aunt. Even before I became a mother I knew that I would not be alone in this journey. I knew that I could count on my family to support, guide, nourish and love me and my growing family.
Eight months later, I packed my belongings and moved with my young family to Madison Wisconsin, where my husband started his graduate studies. In this new place I now called home, without my family and friends around, without the Hebrew language, the Jewish calendar and Israel, I started to ask myself how we should raise our child in the USA, without our community and our history, where we are, as Jews, the minority? I knew that everything we decided to do or not do would impact the identity of our daughter, and subsequently, her future life choices. My awareness of the potential impact of every one of my decisions upon the identity formation of my children occupies me today and informs my choices personally and professionally, both locally and internationally.
I shared my personal story earlier this fall, as the opening introduction to a panel I offered at the Israeli-American Council (IAC ) national conference in Washington DC. At this conference over 2100 American Jews and Israeli-Americans asked questions about identity formation and the future of our community and children. We explored ways to connect American Jews with Israeli-Americans and worked together to strengthen our connection to Israel.
The reality today is that many American Jews, like Israeli-Americans, live far away from their home communities and families. In many cases, both parents are working full-time and rely upon strangers to raise their children; many are in interfaith partnerships trying to find a path with which both parents will feel comfortable. They are also questioning the identity of their children; and the identity of their young family. The questions that we must ask as a community are: Who will help them and guide them as they make their initial choices that determine the path that they will follow? Will the Jewish community take responsibility and be there for them? Will the Jewish community invest in this population to secure a strong Jewish foundation for those families, a foundation of thick Jewish identity that will then lead to future Jewish engagement?
During my IAC panel, Dr. Neta Peleg-Oren, Owner, of Psychotherapy and Mindfulness Private Practice located in Miami, Florida, shared research in the field and her work with families. She emphasized how the first few years in the life of a child and family are so crucial in the formation of identity. Arnee Winshall, President & CEO of Hebrew at the Center, Inc., added to Dr. Peleg-Oren’s discussion about identity by presenting research findings on the impact of maintaining Hebrew language, Israeli culture and Jewish engagement in the home as it relates to identity and self-esteem. Jeanne Lovy, VP of the JCCs of Greater Boston, who works locally in Boston but also works very closely with Mark Horowitz nationally (JCCA), shared JCCA’s new strategy for working with the family as a whole.
The Jewish community is now devoting more resources to engaging young children and their families. Over the years, The PJ Library has transformed early engagement nationally and internationally. The URJ, like the JCCA, is investing more in young families, and many other communities around the country are also choosing to invest in young families. Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp, spoke in a separate session about a new program with day camps and working with younger children. Rabbi David Gedzelman, President and CEO of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life who spoke on a panel about Israel connection, also stated that the Jewish community needs to start earlier, with five year-olds and younger.
A lot is being done, but it is not enough. We are doing better by reaching out to parents and engaging them but we are still very weak following through with “next-step” programming that will sustain meaningful, high quality and deep connections. We have opened the door for many families, but now we need to bring them in and make them feel comfortable so they will stay. Like Abraham in the desert who went out of the tent to look for guests, after he found them he did everything he could to make them comfortable. We need to make it a priority to devote more attention and resources to sustaining our connection to this population.
Who will be there for the new generation? To join the conversation or learn more about it please contact Rachel Raz founder of Jewish Early Engagement Forum ( JEEF), a national initiative.
Rachel Raz is the Director of the Early Childhood Institute of Hebrew College, Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education in Newton MA. She is founder of JEEF. Rachel advocates nationally for investment in young children and their families to ensure a strong foundation of Jewish identity. Rachel can be reached at [email protected].