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Study indicates Milwaukee could lead in engaging young Jewish families

By Andrea Waxman
of The Chronicle staff

September 25th, 2008

Mark Rosen, Pd.D.

Mark Rosen, Pd.D.

Social scientist Mark Rosen, Ph.D., has high hopes that Milwaukee’s Jewish community may be the first in the country to implement his vision of an effort to inspire many more young Jewish families to engage with their faith and community and raise their children as involved Jews.

Working out of the Brandeis University Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Rosen completed, in August 2006, a one-year national research study funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Milwaukee’s Helen Bader Foundation.

Then he used those results to analyze and prepare a report for the Bader Foundation on the Milwaukee area’s programs, people and trends that influence young Jewish parents.

Rosen gave an overview of that report to Milwaukee Jewish community leaders at a luncheon meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 23, at the Bader Foundation.

“This group [of young parents] is largely neglected in Jewish life,” Rosen told The Chronicle in a telephone interview last week. And that is a mistake, because the result has a far-reaching negative effect on the numbers of Jews who stay connected to Judaism and the Jewish community.

”When people first become parents, they’re looking for friendship, they’re looking for guidance, they’re looking for connections and where they make those early connections can really determine the course of a number of years,” Rosen said.

“If they make early Jewish connections, they’ll make Jewish choices and if they don’t ... they’ll make non-Jewish choices and so the idea is to find ways to help them connect Jewishly at that critical early window, which is really the first two years [of their first child’s life.]”

During this time, when the lives of new parents have changed completely and they are exploring options, making new friends and thinking about how they want to raise their children, there are no institutions in most Jewish communities for them to turn to, Rosen noted.

“It’s before preschool; synagogues are not really kid friendly — if you go to Friday nights services, you can’t have your toddler crawling around — and so there’s really no comfortable place to go that’s Jewish.”

 New model

Rosen, who is currently a visiting scholar in the Eliot Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University, reported that Milwaukee has unique strengths in this area. He specifically pointed

• A strong set of parenting programs at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, which Rosen described as one of “relatively few JCCs around the country where families with young children have such a prominent strategic role in the business plan.

• “A prominent, visible and influential” Chabad Lubavitch organization with a respected preschool, Jewish Beginnings Lubavitch Preschool, that “attracts a number of families who might not otherwise become involved with a Jewish institution.”

• The Helen Bader Foundation, which “plays a major role in fostering new and creative programming.” He noted that “unlike most other federation-driven communities, where change can be slow because of federation committee structures, [this foundation] permits innovation in Milwaukee to occur relatively quickly.

• “Many secular institutions that offer sophisticated services and programs to parents, providing expertise that the Jewish community can draw upon.”

The most significant weakness that Rosen found in Milwaukee, and in every community he examined, is that no matter how good the programs of local institutions and organizations are, none of them can offer all of the answers and there are many barriers to collaboration.

For example, he said, Jewish community centers are probably the best places overall to have programs for young families, because they have preschools and the right kind of facilities and orientation; but they don’t generally offer religious content.

In addition, JCCs and institutions like them necessarily aim to build their own membership, rather than work together to offer the broadest array of choices to parents, he said.

Rosen advocates a model where one organization or individual acts as a central clearinghouse for all the programs in a community “because it ultimately will bring the most parents in connection with Jewish life,” he said.

What is most needed is “a community-wide approach where all the names of [all] the parents are pulled into a central list and then all of the options are advertised to that list and the parents get to choose what makes them most comfortable,” Rosen said.

Such a neutral, disinterested entity doesn’t exist, though Rosen knows of one community that is considering creating one. “Maybe that’s an option for Milwaukee.... It’s up to Milwaukee to decide that.”

Tobey Libber, program officer in charge of Bader’s Jewish Life and Learning area, has been supportive of Rosen’s work since they met while Rosen was doing research on the Milwaukee community for his initial national study, which was only partially funded at the time.

The Bader Foundation decided to fund these studies, because it “sees services to young families and college students as particularly important to future involvement in the Jewish community,” Libber said in a telephone interview.

“This particular report was of significance to us because it reached an age group where families are making critical choices about the futures of their Jewish lives. It’s so very important that there be opportunities for them to connect Jewishly with our community,” Libber said.

As forthe establishment of a central community coordinator, or clearinghouse, Libber said, “we actually tried to get that going but we didn’t have much success.”

Rabbi Shari Shamah, the Ethical Start coordinator at the JCC, whose position is funded by the Bader Foundation, is functioning in this role to some extent, Libber said. She is doing a lot of work with this particular age group.

Libber said he feels Rosen’s recommendations “are solid and rational as a result of the research that was done.” He added, “I’m hopeful that the community will move in the direction of working together to reach out to families, rather than working independently.”