Strike up a conversation with an unaffiliated Jewish parent pushing a toddler on a swing in a Prospect Park playground or strapping an infant into a car seat outside a supermarket in Mount Kisco and chances are he or she will have heard of Music Together, Super Soccer Stars, Kidville, UrbanBaby.com, the Park Slope Parents listserv or another of the numerous secular (and often for-profit) resources out there for young families.
Will he or she even know of any Jewish programs, much less have participated in one? Probably not.
That, in a nutshell, is the most striking finding of a newly released study on “Jewish Early Engagement in New York,” which portrays an organized Jewish community that, with a few exceptions like Chabad, is missing critical opportunities to reach out to uncommitted new parents.
Plagued by out-of-touch or nonexistent programming; publicity that — when it exists — is unsophisticated and in the wrong venues; staff that is overstretched and undertrained; unfriendly prices and a lack of communication among individual institutions, Jewish programs tend to attract only the most motivated families, even as countless other parents express an openness to Jewish experiences, according to the study.
With a new parenting website/portal called Kveller.com slated to launch later this month and with “ignition grant” funding set aside for projects in Brownstone Brooklyn and adjacent neighborhoods like Ditmas Park, UJA-Federation of New York’s two-year-old Beginning Jewish Families Task Force, which commissioned the study, is seeking to dramatically improve Jewish outreach to this demographic. What’s at stake? Attracting on-the-fence new parents at a point when they are forming lifelong friendships and making decisions about how to raise their children.
“We know this is a moment in the lifecycle of a family where there is potential to reconnect to Jewish life,” said Rebecca Spilke, a planning executive at UJA-Federation, which is investing “hundreds of thousands” of dollars in the project, including almost $200,000 on Kveller.
The study, conducted by Mark I. Rosen of Brandeis University and a team of six researchers, notes that when a young family becomes involved with secular institutions instead of Jewish institutions, parents are “less likely to establish friendships with other parents who are involved in Jewish life, and will be less likely to encounter Jewish role models.”
Since Jewish friends and role models “have a strong influence on whether parents make Jewish choices for their children,” the study argues, families not reached early are less likely to get involved in Jewish tradition during their children’s early formative years, and the children will likely grow up with little connection to Jewish life. And if the parents are intermarried, the study says, whether the child even identifies as Jewish at all is at stake because “lack of involvement with Jewish social networks can have a negative influence on whether [couples] raise their children as Jews.”
The task force is starting with pilot efforts targeting Brownstone Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan and northern Westchester, areas that are enjoying significant Jewish baby booms and also have some Jewish communal infrastructure in place. (The study focused on these neighborhoods, as well as Staten Island and South Brooklyn.) Kveller, which is being created in partnership with MyJewishLearning.com, will initially list events and activities only in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, but an expansion into the other boroughs, Nassau and Suffolk is planned.
“The hope is that once this is in place, [the pilot neighborhoods] will just be the beginning,” said Shereen Rutman, the task force chair.
Kveller, which is slated to launch Sept. 20, offers new parents a forum in which to communicate with each other, learn about local events and classes, and access articles about a range of Jewish parenting topics.
According to Daniel Septimus, MyJewishLearning.com’s editor, a growing number of Jewish communities around the United States are looking into establishing similar websites. Denver already has (not through MyJewishLearning) a portal called MazelTots.
Kveller, Septimus said, targets a diversity of parents, including interfaith and LGBT ones.
“We’re very consciously saying ‘parents of Jewish children’ and not ‘Jewish parents,’” he said, explaining that the site aims to be accessible to non-Jewish partners in interfaith relationships, as well as the Jewish ones. “We very much want to be addressing the needs of interfaith couples, and that was one reason it was hard to come up with a name for the site. We wanted to avoid putting ‘Jewish’ and ‘parent’ together,” he added.
Similarly, the “ignition grants,” which range from $10,000 to $40,000 and will be awarded in October, target a “diverse array of modern families, including those who may be interfaith, single-parent, LGBT, Israeli, Russian-speaking or adoptive families,” according to the request for proposals, which was circulated this summer.
“Parents and children throughout this collection of neighborhoods in Brooklyn are already gathering for events and classes,” the RFP notes. “We would like to encourage neighborhood-based program providers to serve the Jewish community and support Jewish organizational efforts to reach families in public spaces. We also want to grow grassroots efforts to reach people in individual homes through personalized events.”
Conducted through a combination of personal interviews and focus groups, the study extensively describes the very different cultures and needs of Jewish parents in each of five region/neighborhoods in New York. They range from the relatively affluent, tech-savvy and politically liberal parents of Lower Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn, to the Russian-speaking working parents of South Brooklyn, to the heavily Israeli and Russian parents of Staten Island to the wealthy, but often socially isolated, stay-at-home moms of northern Westchester.
(The study consisted of 116 “spontaneous interviews” conducted in public settings and 10 focus groups, in which a total of 75 participants attended. In addition, the researchers interviewed 166 professionals in Jewish and secular organizations, businesses and nonprofits that cater to parents.)
Despite many differences in need and culture, two things are common to all five regions: a lack of collaboration among local Jewish institutions, and interest among parents in Jewish programs with cultural, but not necessarily religious, content.
One notable finding is that many parents expressed enthusiasm about the possibility of new Jewish programs, as long as they were convenient, accessible and inexpensive. Interest in the focus groups, publicized on parenting listservs, was so high that researchers had to turn away would-be participants.
Rutman said she was surprised to find “how needed [greater outreach to young families] is, how necessary it is and how much excitement was generated by asking some of the questions and hearing that people would actually be so receptive and eager to have [Jewish programs] in their midst.”
One focus group on the Lower East Side actually morphed into a mini-havurah of sorts, with some of the participants and their friends planning (via group e-mail discussions) informal Shabbat and holiday get-togethers.
Ella Leitner, who has a 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son, hosted the focus group this spring and has subsequently gotten together with a dozen local families for a Shabbat potluck and, just last week, a Rosh HaShanah celebration in a nearby park — something that was more compatible with her family’s needs than children’s services at a synagogue, she said.
“We had a little song, a little prayer and then we walked down to the river together to do Tashlich,” she said. “It was exactly what I wanted.”
While Leitner and her husband are both Jewish, most of the non-Orthodox families in the neighborhood are interfaith, she said.
Shannon Lorraine, who lives in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn and participated in a focus group there, said she is still searching for the right community for her, her Catholic husband and their 2-year-old daughter.
“We went to a synagogue in the neighborhood and it just wasn’t very welcoming,” said Lorraine. “I was surprised. No one was very friendly. They weren’t intentionally being rude, but it was kind of uncomfortable.”
That was a sharp contrast to a church she and her husband visited when she was pregnant, before they had decided to raise their daughter exclusively Jewish.
“They were so welcoming, so inviting, so warm,” she recalled. “Everyone invited us to their houses.”
Leitner and Lorraine are not unusual in their feelings about synagogues.
According to the study, while “virtually all” of the parents who participated in the focus groups were “interested in transmitting Jewish tradition to their children,” few expressed interest in joining synagogues.
Instead, the study reports, “There is a sizable population of parents looking for Jewish education for their children outside of a synagogue setting.”