One Sunday afternoon a month, Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley turns into a family room. One congregant brings a rug, another brings pillows and members plop down to share what's going on in their lives.
"I lost a tooth," one child might say. "Grandma had a birthday," another might share.
The "family room" is a homey prelude to the afternoon's main event — Beth Israel's Family Hevruta (Hebrew for partnership), a program that brings families together to study Torah.
On select Sundays since November, at least a dozen families have gathered at the Orthodox synagogue to study everything from lust, anger and envy to honoring and respecting others. The theme of the latest Sunday meeting was "Fair Punishment, Unfair Punishment and Vengeance."
The sessions include time for parents to review materials with their children, study with their own family and then study in groups. While most participants are synagogue members, non-members are also welcome.
"Jewish society traditionally assumes that families study together," says Beth Israel's Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman, pointing to the admonition in Deuteronomy 6:7 that "you shall teach [the words of Torah] to your children."
However, in modern society, where education is often left up to professionals, "how often does a whole family get together to grapple with a piece of Torah?" he asks. "Unique, I think."
One thing that makes the Family Hevruta unique is that Jews of all ages, from elementary school to seniors, seem to benefit from each other's insights on the teachings of Judaism.
"We always learn from the kids," says Irene Resnikoff, a member of the Family Hevruta planning committee who attends the program with daughter Dorit, 12, and son Ariel, 7. "Everyone learns from each other, which is what's really exciting about it."
Granted, not all kids have the stamina to sit through discussions on Torah. But they too have plenty to keep them occupied at the Family Hevruta. That's because while discussion groups meet, kids can get involved in arts and crafts projects relating to the theme of the afternoon.
For example, one Sunday, during a discussion on external and internal beauty, children were asked to decorate a bottle and then consider what they would put inside to make it valuable. The project grew out of an ancient Jewish teaching: "Don't look at the bottle, but what it contains."
Another Sunday, during a discussion on jealousy, children who chose to participate in the arts and crafts project made multicolored coats in the spirit of the garment that was said to have triggered Joseph's brothers' jealousy.
Of course, just because kids can choose art over discourse doesn't mean they do. The week that families studied jealousy, Ariel Resnikoff "didn't want to do the crafts project," his mother reports. "He wanted to stay with the discussion. He liked studying the text and he liked contributing."
One reason younger participants are interested in the discussions is that parents set the pace of their talks to accommodate them. Families studying together often have children who are close in age.
While studying together has helped many families clarify their views on Judaism, it has also given some families new strategies. Among them are communication skills, Irene Resnikoff says. "If you can learn a text together, then hopefully you can talk about an issue together."