Fear of Family

Joel Lurie Grishaver

The State of Family Education

Joel Lurie GrishaverI do a lot of work with Jewish teachers and educators (read “principals”). I spent much of the summer on the road. Since I began more than forty years ago, teachers have been complaining about parents. Letting their kids skip “religious school” for sports tend to be the top of the list. But, today, there are a lot of negative feelings from their interactions with their students’ parents. As they speak, the wounds become clear.

I talk a lot about family education. When I start talking about working with families, up comes a question. They ask, “How do you get families (read ‘parents’) to come to your family programs?” When I give them the answer, they don’t like it because it has a risk of failure and is hard. They want a magic bullet, I offered a process. Underneath their resistance is clearly a fear of families (read “parents”).

What I was suggesting is the long term truth developed by the team at first the Whizin Institute, then the Consortium for the Jewish Family and now, Shevet: The Jewish Family Education Exchange. The solution involves working with parents to decide on, recruit, actualize, and evaluate family programs.

I am sure, by the complaints I then get, that the idea of working with parents conjures a flood of anger at and fear of parents from the groups I am working with. I work with teachers and I work with educators, their responses are different. Once there was a synagogue job called family educator. That job, like program director, pretty much died in the recession. So did most federation, central agency and other communal family education position. While congregations have concluded that work with families is a central function, the responsibility has fallen to the congregational educator (read “school principal”).

Principals, unlike teachers, are frustrated by parents. They don’t know how to motivate parents and they don’t know how to satisfy them. The idea of building a alliance, a partnership, with parents seems remote because too much of their time is spent appeasing parents. Overworked as they are, they are looking for a PR trick that will suddenly motivate parents to addend their child’s “family education” event. This is an event that probably uses stations, is created mainly by the principal, and is gaged by the percentage in attendance rather than the impact made.

The Current Situation

One of the first things I am told when I suggest partnerships with families, is that things are different today than they were when you created your models. They suggest that there is a new family physics and the rules have changed in the way that families relate to synagogues.

The Grandchild of The Culture of Narcissism  are the parents we now work with. They have both inherited and rejected the “ME-ness” of the generation that Christopher Lasch described. Families are different.

  • They live in a technological universe that has radically changed communication, recreation, relationships and a lot more. That technology creates an information overload.
  • They are the radical product of a consumer mentality, considering ever interaction a product that they can evaluate, correct, and for which they shop.
  • From the constant ear plugs to eyes on the screen during dinner, not only are their relationships different, but they are lonely.
  • Reports state that 70% of our students have high self-esteem but they are at risk if life bursts that bubble.
  • They are working harder, busier, harried, and part of the collapse of time that the entire American system is experiencing.

What is supercharging all of this is the national attack on schools and teachers as failures who are soaking up needed money without adequate results. The attack on Complementary Schools (read “Hebrew Schools”) is simply part of a cultural attack on schools and teachers.


The thing we forget is that at this moment, submitting your child for a Jewish education (especially in a culture of doubt) is an act of Jewish commitment. It is a statement of trust. Even though everyone says “that a Jewish education will be a poor experience,” putting your child into the hands of a congregation, a school, and especially a teacher is an act of faith. In that context, given the costs, and priorities that have been juggled, we must celebrate each enrolment and each commitment. We may not be the top priority (read “soccer”) but we are a priority and that is not automatic or expected today.

Parents are will to work on their child’s Jewish identity—witness the participation in PJ Library and the success of many family education programs in some settings. We are now called upon to radically reconsider our relationships with families. Remember, radical means: “back to the root.” Radical is an act of conservation.

The steps that are need are:

  1. To get over our expectations of what Jewish parents should be and do. We need to reach out to them where they are. Once we do that—the fear and anger at parents will disappear.
  2. To reach out—actively (and not automatically) to invite parents into partnerships to maximize their child’s experience.
  3. To work with families to plan, market, execute, and evaluate family experiences.

Do not fear the results. Don’t be easily rebuffed. Allow them significant involvement and trust.

The Flipped Classroom

One of the hot trends is the flipped classroom . In 2007 two teachers Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sam at Woodland Park High School figured out how to use classroom time in a more productive and exciting manner. They recorded their lectures on computer and had students watch them at home. Then came the flipping, classroom time became the place for homework and activities where the teacher could work more specifically on the application of material introduced at home.

We were flipping the classroom before anyone knew about AOL. We developed “homework books” for our Hebrew texts where students could teach their parents what they had learned and then drill the material together. That left the classroom free to focus on content.

The flipped classroom is the perfect way to work with families. It allows them to spend 5-10 minutes together at home, then turn the classroom into a place of experiential education. Take a breath—don’t say, “They won’t do it.” Give that frustration up. Go directly to the right question—how do we invite them to do it. What kind of benefit can I find for the parents (read “nahas”) that will encourage their participation. When we get families to become our teaching partners, the universe opens and we have lots more teaching possibilities. All it takes is giving up our fear of parents and our doubts about their commitment.