The Concierge: Jewish LearningWorks guide helps young families find their way to Jewish lifeby dan pine
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When it came to creating a Jewish life for herself and her young daughter, Stephanie Bloom knew what she wanted. She just didn’t know how to get there.
That’s when she made a coffee date with Sarith Honigstein, family concierge for Kesher, a year-old program of S.F.-based Jewish LearningWorks. It turned out to be the most significant nonfat decaf latté Bloom had ever ordered.
“I wanted to find paths to enriching Jewish life,” says the San Carlos single mother. “The issues were which synagogue would be good, which have activities for kids [and] a preschool, and other families that live near us. I wanted a community near my home.”
After a few get-to-know-each-other meetings, Honigstein connected Bloom with Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City. Bloom and her 3-year-old daughter are now regulars at the kid-friendly Shabbat dinners there, and both have made new friends.
Honigstein’s title of family concierge aptly describes her role: to serve as a wise and friendly guide for young South Peninsula families seeking entry points to Jewish life.
Looking for a Palo Alto area tot Shabbat right for you and your kids? Call the concierge. Curious about fun-for-the-family nature activities with a Jewish twist? Call the concierge.
If it’s happening in the South Peninsula Jewish community, Honigstein, a former corporate marketing executive in Israel, will find out about it and hook you up.
“It’s really hard to make your way around and understand the differences between the synagogues and Jewish institutions,” says Honigstein, who usually meets with families at a local café. “People are so short of time nowadays. It’s more efficient to sit down with me.”
In the year since Kesher (Hebrew for “connection”) launched with funding from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Impact Grant Initiative, Honigstein has helped more than 400 families, far exceeding initial projections of 50 families in the first year.
But unlike a hotel concierge, who merely makes suggestions, Honigstein, 37, also plays matchmaker, connecting like-minded families for picnics, holiday celebrations and more.
“The goal is get people to explore the Jewish community in whatever way they see fit,” says the German-born mother of two.
Connecting families to picnics and synagogues may seem off-topic for an institution once known as the Bureau of Jewish Education. It’s not, according to Jewish LearningWorks’ executive director, David Waksberg, who says outreach is now a core part of its mission to “improve and extend” Jewish learning.
Along with changing the name of the agency in 2012, Jewish LearningWorks expanded its efforts to reach potential Jewish learners “where they are,” as Waksberg puts it. The agency serves the entire Bay Area.
“The traditional mission of a BJE is to improve Jewish education,” he says. “The way to do that is mainly by strengthening schools, because that’s where education happens. A few years ago, we looked at the data and realized the proportion of potential learners found in schools was not growing. In some ways it was diminishing.”
That awareness led to brainstorming about new ways to entice young parents, many unaffiliated, into the fold of Jewish religion, culture and education. Community engagement, it was determined, needed to become a core part of the agency’s mission.
“The connective tissue that used to exist isn’t there anymore,” Fenton says. “People are learning and connecting in different ways. As an organization charged with improving and extending Jewish learning, we notice the value we can add to the Bay Area Jewish community in helping people connect, and being that pipeline.”
“We had a strategic choice to make,” Waksberg adds. “We could create alternative programs, hang out a shingle and be a provider of direct educational services. Or we could embrace our central agency role and continue to do what we do in a new way: build capacity and partner with [schools] to create alternatives that reach people outside their walls.”
That’s how Kesher and the concierge concept emerged. But to make it work required finding the right person. Enter Sarith (pronounced “Sareet”) Honigstein, recently relocated to Northern California with her entrepreneur husband and their 8-year-old twins, Dan and Annabel.
Having been an outsider before — as a Jew in Germany and later as an immigrant to Israel — she understood that potential Kesher families sought “a friendly smile… someone interested in them and what they’re going through.”
“It’s legwork and being visible,” she says. “You need to be [at community events]. The Kesher coffee date is not a one-time thing. You have to follow up. The nice thing is I don’t just tell them to go to this or that place. I make introductions. I go, too.”
“She’ll help you make connections,” Bloom agrees. “She would talk to people, tell them about me. She takes the first step.”
Waksberg likens Honigstein to a sherpa, guiding young families and helping them chart “their Jewish journey, making these shidduchs [matches] among these people, and between them and various Jewish organizations and synagogues. We want to empower them to ‘do Jewish’ in their home.”
The Kesher program is one way that goal is being accomplished. Another is happening in Marin with the recently launched Shalom Explorers, a pilot program that helps families with young children gather in small groups to create home-based Jewish learning experiences.
Waksberg and his staff examined data from the 2004 federation-sponsored demographic study of the Bay Area Jewish community, as well as Jewish school enrollment figures. The data showed just one out of five Jewish children enrolled in a Jewish school or education program in the North Bay.
Shalom Explorers, funded by a grant from the Covenant Foundation, was created to draw in the other 80 percent.
It provides parents with a curriculum to create an experiential approach to Jewish learning for children who may not be enrolled in a Jewish preschool, day school or synagogue-based Hebrew school. Aliyah Fastman serves as the program’s coordinator.
According to the website, a typical session incorporates “stories, values and practices rooted in Jewish tradition, including stories from the Bible, ancient rabbis and folktales, as well as practices such as reciting blessings of gratitude, stewarding the Earth, giving tzedakah and more. Children explore their heritage through hands-on art, drama, nature and team-building activities.”
So far, three Shalom Explorer communities have formed, each grouping families by neighborhood and ages of the children. Monthly meetings include activities focused on Jewish values, culture, Israel, tradition and holidays.
One of the parent leaders is Maya Razon, 42, a Mill Valley organizational development consultant with two sons, 3 and 5, who recently moved with her husband and children from Oakland. She connected with Shalom Explorers after spotting an ad for the program on the Osher Marin JCC website.
The family belongs to Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, but they do not attend regularly. The children are not enrolled in any Jewish programs, nor has the family affiliated with a North Bay synagogue.
“I knew [Shalom Explorers] was perfect for our family,” Razon says. “It felt like such a creative, unique way to bring together people in the Jewish community. It’s informal and community-oriented, and that’s exactly what we were looking for, especially in a new community where we were trying to find a new Jewish way in Marin.”
Razon’s group so far has eight participating families, with kids ages 3 to 8. Much of the Jewish LearningWorks curriculum they use was created in partnership with educators from Congregation Rodef Sholom and the Osher Marin JCC, both in San Rafael, Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, and with contributions from the Jewish educational farm Urban Adamah.
The aim was to make sure a successful session did not depend on Shalom Explorer parents having an extensive Jewish education. Or any.
“The beautiful part is that there’s something for anyone,” Razon says. “I’ve never done the education part, even though I have a little bit of Hebrew. But you don’t have to bring any Jewish experience or education to the table. It’s built in.”
A typical session begins with a welcoming circle, then focuses on the theme of the day, anything from shalom (peace) to bayit (home). A parent leader might read a
storybook, then the children might do an arts-and-crafts project based on the theme, ending with a closing circle.
“It doesn’t feel forced,” Razon adds. “It’s self-driven. Things that had people shying away from the professional Jewish community are not present. [The program] pares down the baggage people have around organized religion in general.”
It may seem counterintuitive, but the program, which arguably siphons families away from conventional synagogue Hebrew schools and Sunday schools, has support from local synagogues.
That’s because synagogue leaders understand that when it comes to Jewish life, an entry point is an entry point, and participating families, once drawn in to Jewish life, may choose to affiliate some day.
It’s all part of Jewish LearningWorks’ strategy to reach people where they live.
“For a lot of families on the margins, their Jewish learning background is limited,” Fenton says. “But they’re supersmart, highly sophisticated. [They] are not looking for ‘Judaism lite.’ They want the real deal, but are not necessarily interested in going to a synagogue.”
For participating families not affiliated with local Jewish institutions, Waksberg hopes the program will become a bridge to deeper community engagement.
“We want to create opportunities for them to be familiar with the synagogues and the JCC,” he says. “We’re coming together to say this is for the greater good of the community, even though we don’t know if it will directly benefit organizations per se. We all took that leap.”
That approach seems to be paying off in the South Peninsula, where Honigstein brings to the table a lifelong passion for Jewish community engagement.
She was born and raised in Stuttgart, Germany, where her father was a leader in the Jewish community. At 14, she began attending a British boarding school, where she mastered English, and after graduation attended a Hebrew-language ulpan in Jerusalem. Honigstein loved Israel so much that she stayed on, earning a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Hebrew University.
She worked in marketing for years and was perfectly content living in Israel and bringing up her twins. But her husband, Manny, launched a high-tech startup, and Silicon Valley beckoned.
The family moved to Palo Alto in 2012. Her desire to connect to the Jewish community led her to apply for the post of concierge in 2013.
“We were looking for someone who could relate to the market and the families,” Waksberg says, “someone who understands what they’re looking for. To her credit, she went out of her way to meet with all the educators, synagogues and schools. She reached out to everybody. Everyone feels they have Sarith in their corner.”
Honigstein deflects the praise.
“We have great partners,” she says. “They all think the program is great. They see the results, they get referrals and ultimately membership. But that’s not the ultimate goal. The goal is get people to explore Jewish community in whatever way they see fit.”
Waksberg says his agency will be expanding the concierge program into the North Bay later this year. He also anticipates expansion for Shalom Explorers to other areas that Jewish LearningWorks serves.
The key, he says, is to reach as many Jewish families on the margins as possible.
“Do we say, ‘Here’s the square peg you have to fit into?’ ” Waksberg asks rhetorically. “Or do we want to create as many different shapes as there are pegs, so there’s a place for everyone?”
For information on the Kesher or Shalom Explorers programs, visit www.jewishlearningworks.org.
on the cover
Sarith Honigstein of Kesher
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