Educating American Jewish Families

Risa Gruberger, whose children are 8 and 9, hopes they will both grow up loving the Jewish holidays as she does. “When the weather’s crisp out,” says Gruberger, “I want them to feel they can smell it, they can taste it, that Chanukah’s coming.” At her house, decorations are homemade, not store-bought. Every year the family constructs a menorah, using such homey materials as fingerpaints and recyclables. A decade from now, when the kids are off at college, she fantasizes that each “will make a menorah and send me a picture.” This pertains to her firm conviction that “traditions can grow as the child grows.”

Gruberger is not only a devoted Jewish parent. She also serves as associate director of the Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life. The institute, headquartered at the University of Judaism since its founding in 1989, is dedicated to promoting the spiritual well-being of the American Jewish family through the concept of family education. Its activities include a highly regarded summer seminar at which educators from around the country gather to discuss how to reach and teach the Jewish family.

The Whizin approach can be seen when Gruberger leads workshops on what many call “the December dilemma.” She prefers to view the Christmas and Chanukah season as “the December opportunity,” a time when Jewish families (even blended ones, and those touched by intermarriage) can gather around the table, strengthening their ties to one another through holiday fun. In her repertoire are a long list of projects and easy games, suitable for everyone from small children to those who lack Judaic know-how. Whizin endorses what Gruberger calls “non-threatening Jewish experiences for the uneducated or the partially educated,” as a way to “come up with safe entry points into the learning.” She especially strives to include teen-agers and older adults, two groups often overlooked in the flurry of Chanukah arts-and-crafts projects geared to the very young and their parents. “Our ultimate goal,” says Gruberger, “is to really help families become comfortable and competent with Jewish family home celebrations and knowledge.”

Whizin’s all-inclusive spirit is also on display in a new book, the first to be published under the Whizin aegis. “First Fruit: A Whizin Anthology of Jewish Family Education,” is edited by Adrianne Bank and Ron Wolfson, both of whom have long been associated with the Whizin Institute. Their volume is a compendium of essays by educators in the trenches who explain in down-to-earth terms how family education strategies can enrich homes, schools, synagogues and other Jewish institutions. Authors located around the country focus on how specific innovations (such as one Baltimore synagogue’s school-within-a-school, “Project Mishpacha”) have helped transform their communities. A section called “Breaking New Ground” offers food for thought to professional educators on such wholly practical issues as fund-raising, how to evaluate family education programs and “interagency and multidisciplinary collaboration.”

For the lay reader, the most fascinating chapter of the book is “Personal Paths.” Here educators tell their own stories, revealing in the process that today’s Jewish families come in many guises. Shelley Silver Whizin, daughter-in-law of the family that gave the institute its start and name, details the lifelong spiritual search that first led her away from Judaism and then brought her back. Jo Kay, who was born into an Italian-Catholic household but converted to Judaism at the time of her marriage, describes how she and her husband risked alienating both sets of in-laws as they and their children became increasingly committed to Jewish ritual observance. Lucy Y. Steinitz, descended from Holocaust survivors, explores the complexities of having a non-Jewish husband and an adopted daughter who identifies religiously as a Jew but ethnically as a Mayan Indian from Guatemala. The theme that reverberates here is that Jewish family education must adapt itself to many types of Jews and many types of families. This is a lesson that both educators and others concerned with Jewish survival would do well to take to heart.