Chai times for ‘Our Jewish Home’

Rachael Smith and her daughter Shayna at an Our Jewish Home Sukkah party.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

It didn’t take long for Marni Deutsch to become a believer. When she heard from a relative about a program that would bring Jewish education right to the doorstep of her Clayton home, she knew she wanted to enroll her four-year-old daughter Ella.

“It was totally convenient and very worthwhile,” said Deutsch.

Worthwhile convenience is a big part of Our Jewish Home, an education program geared towards Jewish families with children ages 3 to 6. Now celebrating its 18th year, the initiative, run out of the offices of the Central Agency for Jewish Education, is still going strong, typically serving some 15 to 25 families annually by providing a year-long learning program for preschoolers.

“Each family may have two-to-six members participating in the visit,” said Joan Wolchansky, coordinator/director of Our Jewish Home. “When you multiply that out, it’s a lot of people. We’ve had over 300 families in the program just here in St. Louis.”

Clients receive four in-home visits from an educator over the course of the program, each representing a different curriculum. The educators typically begin with a Passover-themed meeting in the spring, though some families do start with later sessions instead.

Wolchansky said the timing tends to work out well for two reasons. First, Pesach has a high participation rate in the Jewish community making it a good starting point for the program. It also isn’t as rushed a time as that surrounding the High Holidays.

“We generally start the program with a Passover home visit because we’ve found that most families are involved with Passover, either attending a seder or hosting a seder,” Wolchansky said. “Some are doing one for the first time. They are always looking for meaningful ways of involving their children. It has great resonance for them.”

Future visits deal with Shabbat in late spring and the High Holidays as fall approaches. The final visit is a wrap-up session dealing with mitzvot and Jewish values.

All sessions are conducted in the client’s home, which Wolchansky said makes it convenient for parents to work them into their schedule. Though the curriculum is designed to teach the preschooler, activities frequently involve the whole family. Not just parents, but siblings are welcome to participate in everything from storytelling to simple games demonstrating holiday traditions to Judaically themed flash cards to various crafts projects, including building a mock candlestick or making a shofar out of paper. Participants can even try cooking activities.

After the session, the family is provided with a bag of learning materials that can be used in the future. The most important thing, said Wolchansky, is that while a set lesson plan exists, it is always flexible enough to accommodate what each family wishes to focus on.

“We are very committed to the idea of individualizing each curricular topic to the interests of that family,” Wolchansky said. “It’s not a cookie-cutter. Every family is different and every home visit reflects that.”

Michelle Rubin, one of the program’s educators, said that personalization is vital to the concept. By asking about everything from whether they attend a religious preschool program to how holidays are observed, she works to find out what goals and knowledge the family has and what they hope to gain.

Adjustments are also made based on the personalities of the children themselves.

“You find out what the kids like,” Rubin said. “Do they like to cook? Do they like stories? Based on their interests we tailor what we do each time.”

Rachael Smith said the program helped her family in putting together a memorable “user-friendly” Passover for her three-year-old daughter Shayna that featured the ideas, crafts and games from Our Jewish Home.

“Before, we just rushed through the seder because with little ones, it was hard to have a real seder,” said the Chesterfield resident. “But since we had the materials from Our Jewish Home, it made it much more enjoyable for our daughter, guests and their preschoolers.”

The idea for the program began with Wolchansky and Marci Mayer Eisen, who was then at the Jewish Community Center. After Wolchansky presented a workshop for parents of young children, the pair spoke with some of the moms afterward and began to consider what it might be like to create something with home visits similar to the Parents as Teachers program except geared towards Jewish learning.

The result was an initiative that quickly proved popular with participants, becoming what Wolchansky said is the only community-based, in-home, Jewish family education program in the country.

Grant funding has even expanded the idea further afield from time to time. A replication project is currently underway in Philadelphia, which has used the program for a dozen years, and the St. Louis-originated concept has been tried in Indianapolis, Montreal, San Francisco and Boston. It has been well-received in every instance though, due to funding challenges in their home cities, none of the latter programs are still running.

Locally, the unique initiative has made a wider impact as well. Our Jewish Home partnered with the recently formed Jewish Parents as Teachers to provide the Judaic education piece for their project.

St. Louis’s Israeli sister city of Yokneam even did the program for awhile. Wolchansky traveled to the Jewish State to personally conduct the training in Hebrew, something she called “an incredible experience.” Later, she conducted staff meetings for the group via video-conferencing from Parkway North High School.

Back in St. Louis, the future looks bright for Our Jewish Home. The program currently has eight educators but Wolchansky said it is set to expand to 11 this year.

“I think that as life becomes more complex for families with preschool children, we will be appreciated even more because we take away those barriers for participation yet we have an impactful message,” she said.

Deutsch said her daughter really enjoyed the visits from Rubin, their educator who also happened to be a neighbor. Deutsch said her family even went over to Rubin’s sukkah to share a meal.

Ella was able to interact with the lulav and etrog as well.

“She actually got to touch the objects versus just seeing them in a picture book and I think she really learned from that,” Deutsch said. “I think all those real-life experiences really made an impact.”

For more information, contact Joan Wolchansky at 314-442-3760 or [email protected].