New approach in connecting families to Israel

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

“Family Feud” it is not but area Jewish families are certainly getting themselves into the game this summer — and building a connection to Israel at the same time.

“It’s a new approach to Jewish programming that we’re really excited to try,” said Rabbi Brad Horwitz, director of the Helene Mirowitz Center of Jewish Community Life.

That approach is the Israel Family Challenge, a new initiative that local leaders are hoping will boost education and involvement with the Jewish State by encouraging various Israel-related activities for which participants can earn points.

Divided into basic, intermediate and advanced, point totals vary based on the commitment level of the activity.  Less involved line items like preparing an Israeli birthday cake or dancing to Israeli hip-hop music will earn some points but bigger actions can bring in bigger totals.

“An example is making falafel together with their children, which is fairly basic thing,” said Horwitz. 

“There are also more involved activities such as adopting an IDF soldier or hosting an Israeli in your home for a meal or a shaliach who may be here for the summer.”

Participating families can choose from a menu of some 30 options for different activities from developing a pen pal relationship with someone in the Yokneam-Megiddo region to watching an Israeli film. Free registration began this month and will run through June with families accumulating points until the end of the year. Grand prize is an iPad but smaller awards are also available including everything from family portraits to footwear to gift certificates for food or jewelry. Competitors could even win an Israeli breakfast for eight people.

The idea grew initially out of Focus Israel, an intensive program supported by the Jewish Federation, MAKOM and the Jewish Agency for Israel. 

“We were engaged in this two-year process of learning and had developed a team of professionals and lay leaders,” said Horwitz. “We actually went to Israel last year. As part of that process we looked at how we are currently engaging our JCC families in learning about Israel. We wanted to develop a new and innovative program to further engage them.”

The result was the Family Challenge, something Horwitz believes is unique in the nation.

“We think this is a brand new program that’s not done anywhere else,” he said. “We’re hoping that it’s successful and will be emulated in other communities. That’s one reason we’re really excited about it.”

Another reason is the ethos of the initiative, which allows participants to work at their own pace.

“One of the things that is really innovative about it that is different than many other programs is that it doesn’t require families to come to any particular event at a time or location,” he said. “Most of these activities can happen on the family’s own time in their home.”

Sarah Oberman certainly likes that. As a participant in the Focus Israel committee, the Frontenac resident was thrilled to sign up for the Family Challenge. She hopes her two children will develop a deeper linkage to Israel through the experience.

“The reason I wanted to do it is that we go about our daily lives and sometimes you forget about Israel unless you hear something,” she said. “It’s not an everyday topic but I want my kids to feel connected to it and I want them to see there are different things you can do and ways you can remember it on a more regular basis.”

She felt the convenience makes a big difference.

“It’s on your own time, when you can fit it into your schedule so what’s very appealing to me and I think will be appealing to other people is that you don’t have to meet once a week or once a month,” she said. “You do this on your own.”

Horwitz said that so far participation has been strong. Though registration only opened recently, the Family Challenge already has seen 25 sign ups.

“We’re hoping to get hundreds of families,” he said. “This is a new program so we’re not quite sure what to expect.”

Horwitz noted that flexibility was one key to success.

“Some are ready for the advanced level,” he said. “Others want to start with the basic activities. Each family will choose what interests them.”

Oberman said she is looking forward to the cooking exercises and wants to watch a film with her family. Other activities look interesting as well and she’s still looking at all the options available.

“You can make it whatever you want it to be,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be huge. If you want it to be, it could but if you just want to do a few things, that’s good too.”