Providing busy, young Jewish parents with meaningful experiences to keep them interested in Jewish life is no easy task, but it is one that local organizations have taken head-on.
In 2010, a community survey by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore identified 10,000 Jewish families around Baltimore that were not engaged with Jewish life or Jewish institutions.
Since then, the organization and its branches, including the Louise D. and Martin J. Macks Center for Jewish Education, began developing a number of programs to bring in young Jewish families and get them familiar with Jewish institutions and the community.
One of CJE’s first initiatives was to start a PJ Library community in Baltimore. PJ Library is a Jewish engagement and literacy program that sends books to families with children from 6 months to 8 years old. The books are selected for topics related to Jewish identities and Jewish engagement targeted for the younger crowd.
With the PJ Library community in place, Lisa Bodziner, director of educational engagement at the CJE, and her staff began to build programming around engaging PJ Library families.
“‘Since that time we’ve really been targeting our work more towards that engagement agenda,” she said. “What can we do to provide families with meaningful programs, to have them exposed to more, offer more opportunities for them to learn and feel more connected and invited to community events, programs and services?”
CJE began designing grassroots program around the community connector model. Community connectors are paid volunteers who reach out to families in their immediate communities in order to create programs around their wants and needs. CJE began implementing this model in with five individuals in 2014, and as they added more connectors, they were able to reach out to more than 70 families last year.
“The connectors are a launching pad to the peer-to-peer model of meeting families, finding out what they want, cultivating relationships and then building programs that meet the needs of those families,” Bodziner said.
Last year, with a grant from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation that runs the PJ Library program, Bodziner and the CJE rolled out the first year of their Ahava Baby program, designed for families with newborns through 1 year olds and based on the connector model.
Not only do the connectors help design the programs with feedback from the recipients, but they serve as a point of contact for the families, according to Bodziner.
“That’s what so great about our connectors; once they have a connection, [families] are more willing to show up somewhere because they know they will know someone,” she said.
This idea, that young Jewish families were more likely to show up if they felt like they knew someone, was one issue that connectors identified in the program last year, which involved two “cohorts” of 10 families, one in Hampden and one in Pikesville.
With the success and the lessons of last year’s program, CJE is opening up the Ahava Baby program to any PJ Library families in the Baltimore area, including Towson, Roland Park and Lutherville-Timonium, among others.
Over the last two years, CJE has adjusted its programming to meet the needs that young Jewish families last year identified. Bodziner said the key requests that CJE has paid special attention to included a convenient location, relevant programming that ensures that time away from home was well-spent and easy, digestible lessons that can be implemented in the home.
However, the opportunities are not solely limited to focusing on children. CJE connectors have been hosting moms’ and dads’ nights that help get busy parents out of the house. Family programming is available on certain Sundays, and special events like CPR training or challah bakes are held, all maintaining a Jewish theme.
However, the CJE’s educational programming also includes adults.
Adam Kruger, CJE’s director of educational initiatives, runs the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, and among the programs offered is Foundations, which is targeted specifically for PJ Library families.
“It’s a 20-lesson — depending on how you break it down — curriculum that is actually designed for young families to teach them how to create Jewish identity and engagement with their children at a young age,” Kruger said.
The program pairs the lessons for adults with a concrete connection to the PJ Library curriculum, so parents can read along with their kids with a message in mind. Kruger said he is particularly excited because it allows the parents to be teachers of Jewish identity in the home, as well as keeps young families involved in Jewish learning.
“We’re really trying to work with young families to try and create that next generation of adult Jewish learning, while also focusing on the traditional adult learning community and making sure that stays thriving and vibrant,” Kruger said.
Across all the programs, Bodziner said the focus is beginning to shift. While they have made inroads with engaging young families, the next challenge she sees for the CJE is keeping them engaged and involved in Jewish life as they and their children continue to grow.
Adam Barry is an intern at the Baltimore Jewish Times.