Temple Sinai program targets unaffiliated Jews
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Temple Sinai program targets unaffiliated Jews

Educators unveil new initiatives

For some time, Risa Tannenbaum and Sara Kaplan have been concerned about the children in their congregation who – after going through Temple Sinai’s early childhood program – might “miss some Jewishness” during the year before they enter kindergarten.

To create a “bridge” for these children and, said the two educators, serve both their own congregation and the entire community, they have created a program at the Tenafly Reform synagogue, “reaching out to the unaffiliated in the community who might want to have a taste of Judaism.”

Tannenbaum, director of the shul’s early childhood center for the past three years, describes the new venture as “a free pre-K parent/child interactive holiday program for unaffiliated families in the community.” The monthly sessions, for 4- to 5-year-olds and their parents, provide a way for families to “dip their feet” in Jewish life, she said.

The synagogue – which, she said, is fully subsidizing the program and has already hired one teacher – “is very excited about it.”

Kaplan, who has served as Temple Sinai’s director of education for 14 years, noted that the program, including stories, arts and crafts, and movement and dance, is likely to draw both parents from interfaith families and those Jewish parents who simply want to know more about Judaism.

It will also allow parents to meet the rabbi, cantor, and synagogue educators and visit the kindergarten. Tannenbaum and Kaplan said they hope this will “drum up” students for the kindergarten program and spur families to join the synagogue.

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Sara Kaplan, left, the shul’s director of education, says it’s important to work on values. Parenting is a challenge, says early childhood director Risa Tannenbaum, right. Courtesy Temple Sinai

“It’s less threatening to learn with your children,” said Tannenbaum, pointing out that no previous knowledge is necessary to attend.

“Parents need encouragement,” added Kaplan, suggesting that even in families with two Jewish parents, the further away one moves from the generation of Jews “who brought over their Jewishness” from Europe, the bigger the gap in their Jewish knowledge.

In a further effort to reach out to the parents of early childhood students, this year, for the first time, Temple Sinai is making its parenting workshop available to this group. The synagogue already offers parenting workshops for the families of older students.

Inspired by the book “Blessings of a Skinned Knee” by Wendy Mogel, said Kaplan, she and Tannenbaum will put together a parenting program “based on Jewish values.” Joining them in leading the group will be congregant Richard Gallagher, a psychologist who heads the parenting program at the NYU Child Study Center.

While designed for parents in the early childhood center, “it will be open to anyone who is a religious-school parent with a child in elementary school,” said Kaplan, pointing out that unlike the new holiday workshops, the parenting program will charge a fee.

“Parents are looking for educational programs suited to their needs,” said Tannenbaum. “They need more support and we will offer it through this program.”

Kaplan pointed out that parents often come to her and Tannenbaum for guidance.

“We’re the first line of defense,” she said. “Parents question how, when they have so much, they can say no to their children. It’s important to work on values.”

“Parenting is a real challenge,” said Tannenbaum. “It’s bar mitzvah versus soccer games. Parents need language and support. They want to be more grounded.”

If parenting programs are offered to them when their children are young, “they won’t have to struggle later on,” she said. “They’ll be much more secure as parents.”

Among the topics the workshop will discuss is “downtime from all these gadgets,” said Kaplan, noting that many parents spend less time today talking to their children than they do talking on their cell phones.

“They don’t realize that they’re not communicating,” she said.

The group will also talk about Shabbat and the value of sharing a Shabbat dinner.

“We want to give tools to parents,” said Tannenbaum, noting that parents will receive transliterations of blessings and will be talked through the choreography of home Shabbat observance – for example, “covering your eyes and what to do with your hands” after lighting candles.

Tannenbaum said she has heard parents say they don’t go to services because they don’t know what to do there. The new programs, she said, “will try to create a comfort level for parents” that may help address this problem.

For further information, call the Temple Sinai religious school office, (201) 568-3075.

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