Got a parenting problem? Maybe Moses can help
Asked to draw an image of what parenting a ’tweener means to him, David Lobron of Newton depicted a mother belaying her daughter as she rock climbed.
“You want your kids to have an adventure, but at the same time keep them safe,” Lobron said. “So there’s a balancing act between providing guidance and letting kids explore, make their own mistakes, and grow.”
The exercise was part of Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, a program offered at synagogues and other sites in Greater Boston by Hebrew College and Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
Homegrown and continually updated over the past decade, it resumes in October with three sets of classes geared toward parents of different age groups: birth through age 10; ’tweens 10-13; and teens through 19. A sampling of class titles reflects the program’s wide scope: “Shabbat: A Time to Reconnect and Recharge,” “Parenting at a Time of Loss,” and “A Time for Every Purpose: New Freedoms and Setting Limits.”
Parents come from all streams of Judaism and from other religions. Many are in interfaith marriages. The faculty includes clergy, veteran Jewish educators, and social workers. The program is hosted by synagogues and other Greater Boston venues.
Classes open with a brief teaching drawn from Jewish texts, ranging from ancient to contemporary, followed by discussion. “Being able to be in the room with other parents is the most valuable aspect of our program,” said Dena Glasgow, director of faculty for adult learning at Hebrew College. “They’re in the trenches.”
Lobron said one class began with a quotation from the Book of Proverbs about the need to discipline children, but in a gentle way. The quotation was paired with the 2008 advice book “How to Hug a Porcupine: Negotiating the Prickly Points of the Tween Years” by Julie Ross.
That session helped Lobron hone his listening skills. In the past, he said, when his children talked about what happened to them at school, he’d immediately think in terms of his own experiences.
Now, he and his wife, Alison, ask better questions. Referring to their 10-year-old daughter, Shira, he said, “We give her more space to explain how she’s feeling.”
The couple, who also have an 8-year-old son, Gabriel, attend the parenting classes in West Newton at Dorshei Tzedek, a Reconstructionist congregation.
The parenting program teaches about Jewish rituals, but avoids prescribing how they should be practiced. Rather, it stresses how they can foster family traditions, a connection with the past, and an appreciation of life’s little and large milestones. “Every ritual has to be meaningful or else you’re not going to do it,” Glasgow said.
“We say a Jewish blessing before starting something like bike riding or rock climbing,” said Lobron, whose drawing of parenting wasn’t just metaphorical.
Like other parents interviewed, his family celebrates what he called “Shehecheyanu moments.” The name refers to a prayer that is formally recited at many Jewish holidays, but broadly speaking it is used to express gratitude for the opportunity to experience something new. Families may recite it after, say, a toddler starts to walk or a child learns to ski.
Taking a chairlift down Sugarbush, Lobron’s family spotted a rainbow beneath them and recited a prayer for the occasion, one that serves as a reminder of God’s promise to Noah to never again unleash a worldwide flood.
“One of the core concepts in Judaism is that we’re asked to appreciate the everyday miracles in our lives,” said Glasgow. “One of the invitations that parents get in this group is how they can nurture the wow.”
Elizabeth Strzetelski of Natick, who was raised in the Episcopal faith and now identifies with Judaism, spurred her family to explore the religion more deeply. Strzetelski and her Jewish-born husband, Ken Waldman, attend the parenting program in Waltham, where it is hosted by the Boston-area Jewish Education Program (better known as BJEP) based at Brandeis University.
“We’re finding that the traditions that have been celebrated through the centuries relate to our everyday life,” Strzetelski said.
What she cherishes most is how they have brought her family closer together and helped them rebound after their 9-year-old son, James, suffered a serious illness.
For Strzetelski, the mezuzah – a small case containing Torah verses – is much more than a doorway ornament that symbolizes a Jewish home.
Touching it as she leaves in the morning fortifies her “faith and positivity going out into the world,” she said, while doing so on her return reminds her that she’s entering a safe place and can close the door on the stresses of daily life.
Her family has found Shabbos, the Jewish Sabbath, particularly powerful. For them, just as important as the traditional blessings and meal is the opportunity to unplug from the world.
“If you remove that screen, you’re stepping outside the normal,” Strzetelski said.
In class discussions parents often express concern about the intrusion of digital technology into family life. And the children aren’t the only culprits. “The kids frequently say to parents, ‘Why are you always on the phone?,’” Glasgow said.
Besides imparting the wisdom of the ages, Parenting Through a Jewish Lens reassures its participants that even the heroes of the Bible had their child-rearing struggles. “We get to see their flaws,” Glasgow said. “That’s really comforting to people − that they don’t need to be perfect.”
For more on Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, visit hebrewcollege.edu/parenting.