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Extended Family: Engaging Them All!
By Elias Chajet, ISJL Education Fellow
Learning what it means to live Jewishly requires more than just classroom learning; the learning must continue within families, in and outside of the home. Each week students get dropped off at religious school, and their parents expect them to learn the key tenets of Judaism. From God to food and halachah (Jewish law) to history, our students learn new material each week. It is often difficult to see the lessons learned in the classroom utilized in real life because we only see our student’s once a week (twice if we’re lucky).
To ensure that our religious school conversations continue at home we must be able to engage each and every family. Often family education is exclusive to parents and the student. While it is important to bring parents into the fold, there are many family members who could aid in the students’ Jewish life and education but are often forgotten. Siblings, grandparents, aunts, and uncles all have the ability to affect our students' Jewish lives positively. Engaging the extended family all at once can provide students with numerous new outlets for Jewish expression and learning.
Learning as a family will show students that learning never ends and that it is okay, or even encouraged, to ask questions. In many life circumstances, parents must be the all-knowing entity for their children. But, in an educational environment students can see a new, more vulnerable adult. This vulnerability provides a staging ground for programming opportunities. The first step to creating this sense of vulnerability and a willingness to learn requires that we, as educators, find common ground for all generations in attendance to relate. One simple way to do this is a version of “Show & Tell” or a “Heritage Museum.” This type of program requires each family member in attendance to bring an artifact from their Jewish life.
The presentation could be done in one of two ways. The classroom could be set up like a museum exhibit in which students walk from artifact to artifact learning from each family member in attendance. Or, you could have family members present their artifact one at a time to the class as a more frontal learning experience. Students can be presenters in this situation, able to either bring in an artifact from home to present or display anything they have made in the classroom. This heritage museum program shows our students that we never stop learning, regardless of our age or station in life. Each artifact that family members bring in requires them to tell their story. Through the stories of the artifacts, and the experiences of the individual presenting it, students will understand that we can learn from everything and everyone.
Finding common ground that builds a bridge across generations can be difficult. If we can bring multiple generations of a family together to learn together, hopefully they will be more comfortable continuing religious school conversations at home. Once the conversations about history, culture, mitz’vot (commandments), and more frequently occur at home, we will begin to see an increase of young mentschen (good people) walking through our halls.