How Do You Get Them to Show Up?

Joel Lurie Grishaver

joelFor the past few years, every time I do a workshop that contains some element of family education, I get a series of questions: “How do you get them to show up?” What if you can’t get parents to read any of your e-mails?” “When they shut everything down, how do you get through to them?” There is a lot of frustration that comes from working with families today. It seems like there is a new physics—like the universe has change. I teach the basics: relationships and teamwork. Anticipating teaching another family session, I’ve done a lot of research about the issue, and this posting is the result.

The Jewish world is now at a moment when Generation X and Y are parenting Millennials. According to some, Gen Y. and Millenials are two names for the same group. We are approaching the moment when Millennials have and will begin parenting whatever group comes next. Gen. Y and Millennials are digital natives, part of a new perception of the world. This generational change calls for new strategies. Children start using devices such as I-Pads before they are two. Because of the reliance on the 2,000-2001 National Jewish Population Study, and the cancelation of all continental studies since, most existing research focuses on Boomers parenting Generation X and Y. We don’t have a clear picture of what is now happening.

According to the last North American Jewish population studies, the Jewish population has increased slightly and synagogue affiliation is also up a little bit. “…day school enrollment, aside from that of the Solomon Schechter schools, has remained fairly stable” (2012-13 Day School Enrollment Data Demonstrate Stability and Commitment. 2013. Avi Chai). We also know that “Children who have older Jewish parents (age 35 and older) are more likely to be Jewish than children whose parents are younger (age 18-34). (Berkowitz, Laurence Kotler, 2005, The Jewish Education of Jewish Children: Formal Schooling & early childhood experiences, United Jewish Communities). That age qualification seems to be Gen. X verses Gen. Y. in action.

Starting around 2008 the Jewish world began to see two things: (a) a large number of anecdotal critiques of Jewish Education; and (b) the creation of a set of “entrepreneurial” alternatives to a public system of Jewish education. The two are inter-related. The alleged complete failure of the Synagogue school system means that we need alternatives (that should come from somewhere else). Critiques without research read like this:

“Jewish students don’t like supplemental Hebrew School because, unlike their other academic and extracurricular pursuits, they see no tangible reward for their study….Supplemental Jewish education is almost exclusively informal. It provides educational content of questionable worth….” (Glogauer, Eliana. 2012. Schley: No surprise that Jewish students stop going to Hebrew School. New

To learn about Gen. Y’s entrepreneurial and private “Hebrew” school enterprises just Google: (a) Hebrew Helpers, (b) Hebrew Wizards, or (c) Shalom Learning.

From the 2000-1 study The Jewish world also learns (a) that most families are connected to supplemental schools, and (b) these students’ participation tends to collapse after 7th grade (Wertheimer, Jack. 2008. A Census of Jewish Supplementary Schools in the United States 2006-7. Avi Chai) Using this same data, Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman find that the present disengagement does not represent  “…a distancing from being Jewish, but rather dissatisfaction with the existing options for connecting Jewishly” (Cohen, Steven M., Kelman, Ari Y. 2008. Uncoupled: How our Singles are Reshaping Jewish Engagement. Jewish Identity Project of Reboot).

We have learned as a publishing company that both primary and post-eighth grade programs have little market viability. Jewish preschool materials have some currency but anecdotally we see it hard hit by the recession. It becomes clear that dealing with the children of Baby Boomers (Gen. X) and their children (Gen. Y and Millenials) requires new understandings.

“Rock ’n’ rollers once were snarling rebels or chest-beating egomaniacs. Now the presentation is low-key, self-deprecating, post-ironic, eco-friendly…a colleague of mine would tell his students that they belonged to a “post-emotional” generation. No anger, no edge, no ego….Here’s what I see around me, in the city and the culture: food carts, 20-somethings selling wallets made from recycled plastic bags, boutique pickle companies, techie start-ups, Kick starter, urban-farming supply stores and bottled water that wants to save the planet. Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business. Every artistic or moral aspiration—music, food, good works, what have you—is expressed in those terms. Call it Generation Sell.

Bands are still bands, but now they’re little businesses, as well: self-produced, self-published, self-managed. When I hear from young people who want to get off the careerist treadmill and do something meaningful, they talk, most often, about opening a restaurant. Nonprofits are still hip, but students don’t dream about joining one, they dream about starting one. In any case, what’s really hip is social entrepreneurship—companies that try to make money responsibly, then give it all away.” (Deresiewicz, William. 2011 “Generation Sell.” The New York Times.)

We have seen some optimism already from Dr. Steven M. Cohen. Here is more (also based on reworking the 2000-1 study)

“To these phenomena must be added what may constitute a period of cultural efflorescence, as illustrated by developments as diverse as a bourgeoning number of Jewish and Israeli film festivals, widening markets for the work of Jewish crafts people, and the production and consumption of new forms of Jewish music as represented by Matisyahu and his original promoter, J-Dub Records.” (Cohen, Steven M. 2006. A Tale of Two Jewries: The In Convenient Truth for American Jews. Steinhardt Foundation)

Since the 2000-1 study, most new studies about Jewish identification have been local and target specific. The most current study we know about Jewish family needs was done with tens of mothers who have children ages 0-2. While our target is 8 to 12 year olds, there are some things we can learn from it.

“‘Social networks play an important role in parental decision making. Parents’ choices are often influenced by friends – they seek recommendations from peers and go where their friends go…’ When we spoke to the moms, we were struck by their profound desire for intimate peer relationships (they compared finding friends to dating for spouses); their deep interest in experiencing food, ‘fun’ and celebration; and their focus on managing and navigating their challenging transition to parenthood. We heard loudly and clearly that these new parents primary focus is not on increasing their Jewish connections or practice, but on being the best parent they can be and on finding relationships that support them”(Dickstein, Shelly. 2013. “Let’s Get Serious about Relationship Weaving and the Potential for Communal Change in Family Engagement.” e-jewish philanthropy).

Web-weaving (building interpersonal connection at least partially on-line) is part of the latest language in communal life. It is based on the work of Jane Holley (Network Weaver Handbook: A guide to transformational networks. Athens, OH: Network Weavers Press. 2011). Here is another Jewish use of that notion:

“The idea that disparate individuals can come together to become something larger than themselves—whether you call it a tribe, a movement, a people, or a network—has been part of Jewish DNA for millennia. We intuitively understand that banding together gives us not only a practical support system to help us achieve our goals but also enables us to find meaning in life through striving toward shared values, dreams, and identity.” (Fishman, Deborah. On The Foundation of HaReshet. Avi Chai).

The use of web-weaving reminds us that engagement need not be face to face or take place at actual times and places. That is old mortar and brick thinking.

This study of the literature suggests a number of things about the needs we are seeking to fill. Generation Y and Millenials have different access points: (1) Use of technology (for minimal commitment), (2) opportunities for entrepreneurship (aka “remixing” through the creation of their own productions), (3) networking and web-weaving (through the use of social media) and (4) the focus on cultural material—especially food—rather than religious material.

It is harder to be a Jewish educator or teacher today. We could list a lot of factors. But, what is clear, is that to succeed, we still need to build partnerships with parents. We can’t complain about those who do not come. We can’t worry about those who are missing more than we like. Rather, we need to celebrate and build their attendance. We may be dealing with heirs to the sovereign-self (, but that is who we must deal with. Yes, we are challenged, but we need to respond to that challenge. We had better do that with understanding rather than anger.