A Teacher’s Guide to Parents

What do Jewish educators think about Jewishparents? To get the inside scoop, I turned to “Jewish Parents: ATeacher’s Guide.” It’s a recent co-venture by Joel Grishaver and Dr.Ron Wolfson, both veteran teachers and observers of the Jewisheducational scene. The irrepressible Grishaver, who publisheshundreds of books through his Torah Aura Productions, has designed achatty little volume that made me feel I was eavesdropping onconversations in the faculty lounge. Though most of the text is byGrishaver with contributions by Wolfson, the book is chockful ofinput (lesson plans, suggestions, e-mailed quibbles) from scores ofteachers nationwide who’ve played a part in its development.

The starting point is the assumption thateducators and parents need to join forces to achieve their mutualgoal of imparting Jewish knowledge to the younger generation. AsGrishaver tells his readers, “You may not be Mr. Chips, the world’smost beloved teacher. They may not be Tevye and Golda, quintessentialauthentic parents, oozing Judaism with every step. But, you need eachother. This book is a guide to finding that cooperation andunderstanding.”

Grishaver makes clear that good parent-teachercollaboration does not come about automatically. In fact, manyreligious school and day school teachers dread their encounters withthe parents of their pupils. In an opening chapter entitled “ParentsAre Not the Enemy,” Grishaver carefully explains why Jewish parentscan be so prickly in one-on-one sessions with their child’s teacher.Their attitude stems largely from their own ambivalence about thevalue of Jewish education.

On the one hand, parents demand a lot from theirchild’s Jewish studies. In an increasingly complicated world, they’relooking to Judaism to provide what Grishaver calls “a shared bond, afamily process — A RITUAL — which against all the odds, can holdtheir family together and give their children the stability neededtobuild a good life.” On the other hand, parents themselves are oftenproducts of a hit-or-miss Jewish education that stopped abruptly atage 13. (“When it comes totheir Jewishness, most Jewish adults arestill teenagers — and just barely teenagers at that.”) Thisexperience has left them with memories of dreary classrooms, and hasinstilled in them a bitter sense of their own religious inadequacies.Parents want their children to be proudly Jewish, and they hope thatJudaism will magically help their kids steer clear of life’spitfalls. But these adults — so frequently overachievers in theirprofessional lives — remain defensive about their own lack ofsuccess as educated Jews.

Still, even the most ambivalent parent who sendshis or her child to religious school has made a commitment that ahuge number of Jewish parents no longer choose to make. (Someresearchers believe that less than 50 percent of today’s Jewish kidsreceive any substantive Jewish education at all.) Grishaver andcompany argue that the trick is to involve the parent in the child’seducation in a positive, unthreatening way that increases theparent’s own body of Jewish knowledge. The book’s epigraph comes fromMordecai Kaplan: “To educate the child without educating andinvolving the parents and the entire family can be compared toheating a house while leaving the window open.”

But teachers who try reaching out to parentsthrough family education days and family homework assignments shouldrecognize there are pitfalls that must be avoided. It’s never safe toassume that a child’s mom and dad are married to one another, northat both partners in a marriage are Jewish. Parents may not readHebrew; they may be in the dark about even the most commonplaceJewish rituals. Though there’s much to be gained by bringing parentsand children together for a special learning experience, it’s wise toavoid educational games that are highly competitive in nature. One ofGrishaver’s collaborators, educator Sharon Halper, bluntly warnsteachers to “be careful with competition. Parents do not needdemonstrations of what they do not know!”

Given all this, it’s remarkable that more teachersdon’t throw in the towel. Yet some of the best minds in Jewishcommunities across the nation have dedicated themselves to makingJewish education work. This book is filled with innovative ideasabout how to go beyond “shabbat-in-a-sack” and the standardmodel-seder where the kids perform and the parents watch. It’s clearthat the educators cited by Grishaver feel deeply about theimportance of what they’re doing. The extent to which they care andthe energy they put into developing new approaches may come as asurprise to parents, who tend to regard religious school instructorsas well-meaning but basically ill-equipped amateurs.

Ron Wolfson tells me this little book has been abest seller among educators. He and Grishaver are discussing acompanion volume, a work intended for Jewish parents that gives thelowdown on Jewish teachers. The theme? How to get the best out ofyour child’s Jewish education. Until that book sees print, parentswho seek a better understanding of their children’s teachers — andof themselves — will find much to ponder in “Jewish Parents: ATeacher’s Guide.” If nothing else, it will help them regard Jewisheducators with new respect.

Since I began writing this column, I have beenimpressed with the number of experimental programs being launched inour local Jewish classrooms. The Journal would like to spotlight someof these exciting new programs. Schools that are moving beyondbusiness-as-usual are welcome to contact me with news of theirspecial events. Mailings should be sent to me in care of the Journal;I can also be reached via e-mail at bc027@lafn.org.

Beverly Gray writes about education from SantaMonica.

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