“We send our children to school to learn. Our teachers go to school to teach. And then horror strikes.”
These were the initial thoughts Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, shared on Monday morning after hearing about the horrific tragedy at the Ozar HaTorah Jewish Day School in Toulouse, France. A teacher and his two sons, ages 6 and 3, as well as the 8-year old daughter of the school’s director, were shot and killed. The lone gunman responsible for this and two separate attacks last week is now dead.
In response to the attack, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel wrote, “It often happens like this. Jewish blood is spilled and, temporarily, sympathy for Jews grows; the world warms to them. But the pain does not go away, nor does the anger…When we are persecuted, our response must be: We will remain Jewish – and do everything to become more Jewish.”
On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week I stayed home from work to be with my son who was not feeling well. How does one even try to explain this to a 9-year old? The dreaded “why?” questions kept coming. I tried my best to explain, yet my mind kept going back to Elie Wiesel’s words – “do everything to become more Jewish.” Looking at my son…thinking about the age of the children who were killed…I realized how important it is to start “becoming more Jewish” at a very young age by connecting young families to our Jewish community.
Many families with young children are seeking ways to become involved in Jewish life so they can grow and expand “their own community.” Studies across the country demonstrate that young families find it hard to become engaged in the Jewish community, primarily due to: a lack of knowledge of available activities, high cost of participation, and perhaps fragmentation of the community itself (whether religious, geographical, or socio-economic). Location and scheduling are also a factor for many families, especially when both parents work.
As a community, working collaboratively, we must provide opportunities for young Jewish families to:
Meet one another, create playgroups, and develop networks.
Easily find opportunities about classes, family celebrations, events, preschools, camps and retreats via the web, marketing materials, and word of mouth (perhaps the best communication vehicle of all).
Reduce the cost barrier for participation, perhaps by offering discounts for families “to sample” organizations and programs. This may encourage families with young children and expectant parents to try new and more Jewish experiences.
Experience the diversity of Jewish cultural, social, educational, spiritual, and religious opportunities.
Feel welcomed. No matter what the make-up of the family, it is important for people to feel that the programs, services and activities are available to them and a “safe place” to be.
Some ideas for us to consider:
Create a “one-stop shop” for information for young Jewish families. In Denver they created mazeltot.org as that one source website. The community did a study in 2011 and found that “75% of the participants agreed that signing up for MazelTot made them more aware of opportunities at Jewish organizations.”
Hire a community “family networker” to provide personal concierge services for young families to answer general questions about Jewish life and the community, and encourage and develop play groups and other social events. This is a special niche market that goes beyond what is already being done at the MJCC and Federation.
At the end of the day each family will benefit, as will each service provider. By making their programs more affordable, as well as increasing the presence of programs and visibility in the Jewish community through a common vehicle, the organizations will be enhanced due to increased awareness of what they do. This could lead to greater membership and affiliation rates.
Parenthood is a life-altering experience. It is a formative moment for the family that can “spur on the family’s Jewish journey.” Parents (prior to the child’s birth and after) are searching for resources, information services and connections in new ways. This search creates a teachable moment, an opportunity for parents to explore the array and offerings in Jewish life. And those who have positive and meaningful experiences at Jewish institutions or who observe their children having positive experiences may continue to “choose Jewish” not only for their children, but also for themselves.
The presence of young families and their children in the Portland Jewish community will enrich and enhance Jewish institutional life with an infusion of new people, new ideas, and even new financial resources. Let us help these families connect with each other to be friends and co-learning parents. Young families are the future – the more we engage them now, the more our Jewish community will thrive and grow into the future.
Despite the horrific circumstances of Monday morning, let us revel in Jewish life and all that it has to offer. It is an imperative that we excite, connect and involve everyone in our Jewish community, especially young families, so they can “become more Jewish” in their own way. Let’s move beyond the “oys,” and focus and smile upon the joys of Jewish life -- including our children and grandchildren. We are blessed to be able to do that.
May we all have a peaceful Shabbat shalom.
PS - On Sunday, March 25 at 4:00pm at Congregation Shaarie Torah, there will be a special memorial service for those killed in Toulouse, France sponsored by the Oregon Board of Rabbis and the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.