Family Learning Model: Family Mitzvah Days

Merrick Jewish Centre, Merrick, NY

Merrick Jewish Center Mitzvah Day
Model Summary:

Parents and children gather together on Sunday mornings to learn about and engage in a mitzvah in a meaningful way, while building connections with the Merrick Jewish Centre community. Established congregants meet with families to tell their own stories on how they have found personal meaning in a specific mitzvah and how this mitzvah has become a part of their lives. After hearing these stories, families engage in an activity that focuses on that mitzvah. The activity may be learning about, such as learning at the zoo how to protect the habitats of wild animals, or may be living the mitzvah, such as packing and delivering meals for Thanksgiving.

Families are invited to participate in any of the Sunday Family Mitzvah Days, yet each grade in K-6 focuses on a specific mitzvah. Pre- and post-learning take place in the classroom. Students receive a “Mitzvah Badge” for each mitzvah experience they participate in. Students can also receive a “Mitzvah Badge” when they engage in another mitzvah on their own. One student, for example, received a “Mitzvah Badge” for donating her hair to Locks for Love. This model focuses on learning about the mitzvah and living it.

The involvement of “established” congregants is core to this model. Not only do these congregants share their personal stories with the families about a mitzvah they are passionate about, but they also informally join the group for other Mitzvah Days to deepen their relationships. On Shabbat, these “established” congregants, who are regulars at Shabbat services, make a point of personally welcoming the religious school families who are often not regulars on Shabbat.

Family Mitzvah Days take place about twelve times a year on Sundays from 10:00 am to 12 noon, with an optional Family service beginning at 9:15 am. Learners are expected to participate in at least three Family Mitzvah Days. Additional mitzvah experiences, such as visiting an animal shelter, take place during regular religious school hours (Mondays and Wednesdays, 4:15-6:15.)

Who are the Learners?

Learners are 2nd-6th graders along with their families.

Who are the Educators/Learning Facilitators?

The Director of Education, teachers, and congregants.

When Does the Learning Happen?

Generally Sunday mornings, 10 am to noon, preceded by an optional Family service which begins at 9:15 am. Some of the learning takes place on weekdays during regular religious school hours; regular classes are not in session on Sundays.

Where Does the Learning Happen?
  • In the building: in the chapel (Center for Jewish Life); library; conference room; ballroom and other large communal spaces

  • In the community: local animal shelter, INN (soup kitchen), Payless shoes (to buy shoes to donate), on the road to deliver Thanksgiving food to families

  • Field trips: zoo
What is the Learning? How is it Designed?

Families come and learn about a specific mitzvah. A congregant tells their personal story about  how they have engaged and found personal meaning in that mitzvah, what they have gained, and how it has become a part of their lives.

Family Mitzvah Day has focused on the following mitzvot:

  • hiddur p’nei zakein-honoring the elderly: congregants telling stories in the sukkah about celebrating Sukkot when they were younger

  • ve’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha-love your neighbor as yourself: Veterans telling stories of serving our country

  • bal tashchit- do not waste: paper recycling and bottle collections

  • ma’achil re’evim-feeding the hungry: distributing food at Thanksgiving; preparing a meal for a soup kitchen

  • chinuch -education and tzedakah: collecting bottles to raise money to educate children in Uganda

  • tza’ar ba’alei chayim-taking care of animals: visiting animal shelters and zoos to learn about how to take care of and protect animals

  • g’milut chasadim –acts of lovingkindnes: purchasing shoes at Payless to donate to needy children
What Were You Trying to Achieve with this Model?
  • For learners to value that mitzvot can guide us to be better people and to build a better community.

  • For learners to gain the knowledge that mitzvot are not simply “good deeds” but they are based in Jewish law and texts.

  • To motivate learners and to give them the tools needed to engage in mitzvot.

  • To give learners an opportunity to value Jewish learning.

  • For learners to reflect on how performing mitzvot can be meaningful, and can connect us to community.

  • For learners to joyfully engage in mitzvot and will feel enriched by doing Jewish things.

  • For learners to reflect on how living Jewish values and performing mitzvot feels good and enriches families and their lives.

  • For learners to experience performing these mitzvot as a family. When they engage in the mitzvah together as a family, there are opportunities for questions to be asked, and for family conversations to take place.

  • To instill a sense of pride in students for performing a mitzvah.

  • To create a connection between “established” congregants - especially the Shabbat regulars - with younger families.
Key First Steps and Recruitment Plan:
  • This model grew out of Sunday programs that had been established several years ago. The Education Director realized that parents came when the learning was mitzvah based. Recognizing that parents saw mitzvot as meaningful, the Education Director chose to focus on mitzvot. Since Sunday is not generally a required day, the learning had to be meaningful and compelling to bring families in for the learning experience.

  • To advertise Mitzvah Days, flyers are given out in class, emails are sent home, parents are called by phone, and there are postings on Facebook.

  • An unexpected challenge was that it was sometimes difficult to find congregants to speak with families. A number of congregants were not confident about speaking to a group and there were scheduling conflicts for others.
Role of governance and Clergy:
  • Both the senior and the associate rabbis are very supportive – brainstorming with innovation and serving as thought partners.

  • There is an informed and supportive education committee.
Budget:

Approximately $2500 - $3000 per year. Merrick Jewish Centre has a donor who supports this learning. The Education Director noted that this model could be done with fewer funds. The main expenses are for 1-2 teachers/session, food and transportation.

Hiring Needs:

1-2 teachers assist. Because this model includes parents and congregants, only minimal assistance is needed from teachers.

Relationship of Model to Congregational Learning System:

Family Mitzvah Day is a required component of religious school. All 2nd-6th graders are required to attend 3 mitzvah days out of a choice of about 12.

How Do You Describe Your Congregation?
  • Conservative Congregation on Long Island with approximately 600 family units.

  • There are approximately 260 children enrolled in grades K-6.

  • A significant percentage of congregants have been members for 35 years or more.

  • A senior rabbi, an associate rabbi, a Director of Education and a youth director serve the congregation.

 

Related Resources

Model
Provides learning for the entire family on Shabbat, a family retreat, or Sunday school hours. Locations include the synagogue, Tikkun Olam project sites, or homes. A list of Family Learning models has been assembled here.
Model
The obligation to engage in tikkun olam, repairing the world, serves as the focal point for learning, combining study and action. See a list of service learning models.

Related networks

Facilitator:
Suri Jacknis
This continuing network will help you develop best practices in the field of family education. You will set your own goals for enhancing your model of family learning, for experimenting with various strategies to engage the whole family, and /or for increasing parental/family engagement in Jewish experiences and learning. Together we will consider ways to help parents and families see Judaism as a gift that can add connections, meaning, and joy to their lives. In this way, more Jewish children and families will thrive as human beings and as Jews.