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"LEADER" On-line: Vol. 5, No. 2

Active Parenting Today for Jewish Families

by Terrence Gibney

While participating in a parent education program, Debbie Amster was struck by the fact that so many of the ideas of Adler and Dreikurs—the "fathers" of Adlerian psychology—were steeped in Jewish tradition. For most people this would have been an interesting observation and no more, but Amster was associate director for the Center for Jewish Identity of B'nai B'rith and saw an opportunity to address two pressing concerns in the Jewish community.

As in most communities, there was a clear need for more parent education. There was also the desire of many people to reconnect--or perhaps connect for the first time—with their Jewish traditions and values. Amster saw these two movements as interwoven threads. She says that many Jews who haven't paid much attention to their heritage start to see things differently when they become parents. "They struggle with ways to interpret their Jewish traditions and heritage for their children," she notes.

So was born Active Parenting Today for Jewish Families, a partnership between B'nai B'rith and the Helene Mirowitz Department of Jewish Life at the St. Louis Jewish Community Center. Marci Mayer Eisen is director of family services at the St. Louis JCC and says "we raised the question of 'How can we use Judaism as an inspiration for parents?'"

The advisory committee meets with Active Parenting Today author Michael Popkin:

front row, l-r: Sara Wenger, Marci Mayer Eisen, Debbie Amster

back row, l-r: Ofra Fisher, Rabbi Phil Miller, Dr. Popkin

A pilot program was initiated with 14 experienced parent educators who were committed to Jewish life. Rabbi Phil Miller is director of the Mirowitz Department of Jewish Life and one of the authors of Active Parenting Today for Jewish Families. He says a key issue in making the program work is that facilitators need training in both parent education and Jewish values.

"We want to show people that being Jewish and following the traditions helps parents to get more out of life," Miller says. As an expert in Jewish values and Torah stories, he took the core ideas identified by the parent educators and looked for relevant stories and traditions to reinforce the concepts.

For example, one Active Parenting session deals with helping children to develop courage and self-esteem. Miller draws on Exodus for the story of the Jews' flight to safety from Egypt. The waters of the Red Sea did not part until one man, Nachshon, demonstrated the courage to jump into the sea.

Along with stories from the Torah, other components created for the program are Jewish values and Jewish activities. Debbie Amster points to the concept of shalom bayit as an expression of Jewish values. "It means peaceful home," she says, and the idea works hand in hand with Active Parenting's emphasis on mutual respect, personal responsibility and the need for all members to contribute to the family.

"Family Enrichment Activities like the recitation of a special prayer called the Sh'ma are a way for people to see parenting through Jewish eyes," says Marci Mayer Eisen. Rabbi Miller stresses the importance of rituals that "are not cob-webbed relics, but living traditions. The Sh'ma is introduced within a context of something very relevant—putting the kids to bed." He notes how well it fits with the Active Parenting idea of using bedtime rituals as a way for family members to connect.

Providing connections is a critical part of the program, whether for members of interfaith families or for Jews who belong to different movements within Judaism. For a non-Jewish marriage partner, Miller sees Active Parenting Today for Jewish Families as a good place to begin learning about the Jewish faith. "It's a very non-threatening program," he says.

The program also builds bridges between Jews, whether they are reform, conservative, traditional or orthodox, observes Mayer Eisen. The original facilitators all come from different traditions and the pilot program conducted 13 six-week classes in synagogues of all four groups.

Rabbi Miller is looking to further enhance the curriculum, but is also ready to move the program beyond the boundaries of St. Louis. "We want to share the good news about it and involve as many people as we can in the life of the Jewish community."

These leaders joined others in presenting the 13 parenting groups that were held during the pilot program for Active Parenting Today for Jewish Families in St. Louis:

Gloria Morgenstern, Jody Liebman, Ruth Asher, Mimi Levy

At the St. Louis JCC there are already monthly follow-up sessions for "graduates" of the first classes, reports Mayer Eisen, and coming this summer is a three-week support group for grads. In addition to more Active Parenting Today classes, Active Parenting of Teens will also be introduced, much to delight of Mayer Eisen, whose oldest child is on the threshold of the teen years.

Debbie Amster, the originator of the idea for an Active Parenting Today for Jewish Families, sees tremendous promise for the program, and closes with a reference to tikkunol olam, or "repairing the world." "The idea," she says, "is that we are in partnership with God in creating a better world. It's about reaching out to others, whether our families or our communities."

That sounds like a Hebrew phrase that could be useful in every Active Parenting program.

Reprinted from Leader magazine.
Copyright 2000 by Active Parenting Publishers, Inc.