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A ‘Little Einsteins,’ For Little Mensches

A ‘Little Einsteins,’ For Little Mensches

New cartoon on Jewish values focuses on the ‘why' of Judaism rather than the ‘how.’

Amy Sara Clark writes about politics and education. A Columbia Journalism School graduate, she's worked at CBS News, The Journal News, The Jersey Journal, Mom365, JTA and Prospect Heights Patch. She comes to journalism from academia where she earned a master's degree in European History with a focus on Vichy France.

When Sarah Lefton began developing a video series for Jewish children, her first thought was to focus on Jewish ritual.

“When it first started, we thought it would be a series about demystifying the Shabbat experience — 50, one-minute videos about what happens on Shabbat,” said Lefton, founder and director of the nonprofit G-dcast, which makes videos and apps for those looking to learn more about Judaism.

But after talking to dozens of parents, it became clear that the families she was trying to reach, those with a “lower knowledge” base, were more interested in how to raise mensches than how to say the motzi.

The result is “Shaboom!” a 10-part online series of short cartoons for young children that teach Jewish values. The series premieres April 6. A few weeks before the debut of the first video, G-dcast rebranded itself with a new website and name, “BimBam,” a reference to the popular children’s Shabbat song. The name change and release of “Shaboom!” represents a major shift for the award-winning nonprofit, both in terms of the audience it is trying to reach and the vehicle through which it is trying to reach them. And BimBam’s change in focus reflects a shift that has been happening increasingly over the past decade throughout the Jewish educational world.

When G-dcast launched in 2008, its focus was on Jewish texts. The first product was a weekly cartoon series on the week’s Torah portion aimed at adults, educators and students ages 9 and up. They went on to do videos and apps about Jewish holidays, rituals and additional texts. But about five years ago, G-dcast shifted its focus to the preschool crowd, releasing “Let’s Get Ready for Passover!” in 2013.

“If our goal overall is wanting to raise Jewish literacy, young parents are in a unique position in their lives,” Lefton said. “Early family life is a key moment of transition,” she added later by email, “everything is re-examined in a new light for adults as they figure out what they want to share with their children and how.”

This renewed focus on families with young children among Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jewish institutions began in earnest about 10 years ago, exemplified by the 2005 launch of PJ Library, which provides to families with young children free Jewish-themed children’s books with Reform and Conservative Jewish characters. One year earlier, a group of activist donors got together to launch JECEI, the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative, in an effort to increase the number of families sending their children to Jewish preschools.

Since then, there has been a “groundswell” of interest in outreach to young families, said Cathy Rolland, the Union for Reform Judaism’s director of engaging families with young children.

screen_shot_2016-03-29_at_8.27.31_pm.pngFocusing on new parents makes sense, said Maxine Handelman, early childhood education specialist at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which, along with URJ, InterfaithFamily and several other organizations, is partnering with BimBam on the project.

“Parents with young children have lots of options for building their friendship base and finding community, and when their children go to school and are in an environment when Jewish values are lived and taught, I think it deepens their access to Jewish life,” she said.

(Interestingly, on the other end of the Jewish spectrum, the chasidic group Chabad has had a focus on engaging families with young children for more than a quarter century through a network of preschools that welcome secular families. Over the past decade and a half, the organization has been increasing its outreach to college students, and, most recently, teens.)

The launch of “Shaboom!” reflects not only a shift in whom Jewish groups are reaching out to, but also the way they’re reaching out. While the focus of programming used to be holidays and rituals, now more and more organizations are emphasizing universal values presented through a Jewish lens.

“Families who are looking for info about prayers are already on board,” said Lefton, adding via email, “We’re interested in the step even before this. It’s the truly universal, everyday challenges that we’re making into entry points: using a glass of spilled juice as a hook into saying ‘I’m sorry,’ for example, and how Jewish ideas and practices can make that even more special.”

This recent emphasis on values is exemplified by the founding in 2013 of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, to “promote Judaism as a wellspring of wisdom and sensibilities that enriches lives.” It recently introduced “Jewish Sensibility Cards,” each of which displays a value, its literal translation, and an interpretation that connects the concept with ordinary, contemporary life.

“There is a growing interest in Jewish values … and I think this is all tied to the question of how Judaism can be meaningful in our lives, said Jonathan Woocher, the foundation’s president. “It’s a shift from asking, say, about Jewish continuity. We’re asking, not how can we keep Judaism going, but what is it that merits keeping Judaism going?”

This is also a central question for interfaith families, said Jodi Bromberg, CEO of the nonprofit InterfaithFamily.

“One of the biggest questions that I think generally we in the Jewish community have to answer … and certainly this is the question that interfaith families grapple with, is: Why be Jewish? And so to me this show is a perfect response to that question.”

It’s also a big question for many Jews on the liberal end of the spectrum. “What we liked about it in addition to the [high-quality] animation, is the Jewish values, which are a very important framework for us in Reform Judaism,” Rolland said.

Lefton said that before starting “Shaboom!” she looked around for comparable content, but didn’t see the kind of program she envisioned: a PBS-quality series for the 4-to-7-year-old crowd, a kind of “Little Einsteins” or “Sid the Science Kid” on Jewish values.

“My kids are 6 and 3 and I know what they watch,” she said. “I wanted to make something they would love that I, as a parent, wouldn’t feel like it was any less [in quality] than “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” or “Super Why!”

Bromberg agreed. “Kids and interfaith families — and Jewish families [in general] — all have lots and lots of choices these days … and in that really, really crowded marketplace you need exceptional videos, because anything less just isn’t going to cut it.”

So Lefton brought on PBS veterans, such as Robert Pincombe (“Max and Ruby,” “Kate and Mim-Mim”) and Lewis Bernstein (“Sesame Street”), as well as actors and producers from other major children’s networks. The result, at least according to this “Daniel Tiger” and “Little Einstein” aficionado, does feel on par with other professional programming.

011-shaboom-character-papa-rain-dancing-bimbam-watch-something-jewish_1.pngHer reference to the quality of the animation is not a small point. While there are already some cartoons on Jewish values available online, most notably Chabad’s “KabbalaToons,” that series is aimed at older kids and adults.

The show features “magical sparks” Gabi and Rafael, who have the mission of fixing the world. In the first episode, on hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests), they intervene after a family fails to make a visiting Israeli cousin feel welcome.

Each episode is accompanied by a two-minute video for parents that goes deeper into the meaning of each value and suggests ways to reinforce those values at home.

Both the kids and the parent videos make a point of including diverse characters. Gabi is white and Rafael is black. There’s a Korean-American dad (dancing in the rain, above), a Sephardic cousin, and a character who uses a wheelchair. There are Chinese-American and observant moms in the parent videos, and Lefton plans to cast for future videos parents of color, LGBT parents and other people who reflect the diversity of the Jewish community.

This alone goes a huge way in attracting Jews from interfaith families or who otherwise fall outside of the traditional norm, Bromberg said.

“The more that we don’t represent families doing Jewish stuff as looking a particular way,” she said, “I think the more enhanced and vibrant a Jewish community we’ll have, because it will present a true representation of the Jewish community as it is.”

This inclusive attitude was also a draw for another group supporting the project, The Peleh Fund, a donor-advised fund of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund of San Francisco.

“So much of Jewish life, including that which we fund, requires us to be on the Jewish clock of holidays and lifecycle events,” said Adene Sacks, a Peleh Fund adviser, in an email.

“But, like so many families, we sometimes struggle to find the time and the meaning when there’s so much on the schedule. We love ‘Shaboom!’ because it allows parents to engage when and where they are — in their homes and around universal values that engage Jewish and non-Jewish alike on a daily basis.”

And, she added, “It also doesn’t hurt that having great Jewish videos on their smartphones keeps the kids busy for 10 minutes while parents get dinner on the table.”

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