The Art of the Family Meal

Those would be the usual suspects: smart phones and other invasive technologies, long work hours, soccer practice, social engagements, freeway gridlock, homework and the like, all conspiring against the gathering of parent and child at the same table, at the same time, for the same meal, for the same conversation.

A three-year-old program, born here in the Bay Area and migrating to other regions of the country, is pushing back though, attaching family to meal, all within a Jewish framework.

“Family mealtime is a dying ritual and tradition, and it needs attention,” said Vicky Kelman, a veteran Jewish educator, thought leader, and advocate for Jewish family education.

“So we must look for ways to revive and strengthen it. Family mealtime creates stronger families, which makes a stronger Jewish community, which makes a stronger Jewish everything.”

Enter Home for Dinner, an initiative encouraging Jewish families to commit to sharing more meals together and offering guidance for meaningful interaction, Jewish learning and relationship building.

Hazon – the Jewish environmental organization – has been spearheading the program with a Signature grant from The Covenant Foundation.

“In an ideal world, such an initiative would not be needed,” said Nigel Savage, Hazon’s executive director. “But in reality, families need encouragement and a reminder of the need to eat – and engage – together.”

At the core of the initiative is a six-part Home for Dinner curriculum, written and designed by Kelman to travel seamlessly between classroom and dining room, and involving teachers, students and parents in a holistic approach that makes family mealtime a linchpin of Jewish engagement and growth.

One program, for example, focuses on brachot– Jewish blessings – and seeks to instill lessons and encourage conversation about the value of appreciation and gratitude.

Food justice is the focus of another program and features activities, offers teachings and promotes dialogue at school and at home about this timely topic.

Home for Dinner was used in varying degrees by three synagogues in the Bay Area during its pilot year. Its reach has since expanded to seven educational venues in the region this school term.

Jewish educators in Denver and Boulder, Colorado and the New York metro area are beginning to use it this academic year as well, bringing to 16 the number of synagogues, schools and other organizations where Home for Dinner lives. The program is expected to continue growing as educators adapt it in full or customize it to needs within their communities and organizations.

At Congregation Rodef Sholom just north of San Francisco, Home for Dinner is used in fifth-grade classrooms and is also incorporated into the synagogue’s 16-week family program, Kol Hamishpacha.

“It complements what we are already doing, and really addresses a hunger and yearning among our families for engagement between parents and children, and each other,” said Irene Resnikoff, Director of Education at the synagogue.

On a recent Sunday afternoon there, about a dozen families gathered in the social hall for a few hours of just this sort of multi-generational Jewish learning. On this day, they focused on the value of showing kindness to animals – a topic sure to expand table conversation at home and elsewhere.

Dynamo, a guide dog trained by nearby Guide Dogs for the Blind, was the featured guest, as both parents and children learned about the roles that pets and animals can and do play, and what Jewish teachings say about it.

It was all valuable knowledge and perspective to discuss over a shared meal – a potluck dinner eaten family style at long communal tables to encourage conversation and connection.

Participants said that the premium placed by Home for Dinner on collaborative learning by child and parent, and its emphasis on discussion and relationship building during meal time – whether at home or elsewhere – is immensely valuable, and necessary.

“I don’t want to be the type of parent who just drops my child off at school and then drives away,” said Lisa Bloch, who has a six-year-old daughter and lives just north of San Francisco. “Home for Dinner allows me as a parent to be a student as well, and to act on and solidify Jewish values and learning with my daughter at home, over a meal and at other times. It’s all very positive.”

The curriculum is aimed at fifth-grade students, who, Kelman said, are on the verge of bar and bat mitzvah prep years and are most amenable to some of the more abstract principles that Home for Dinner advances. Still, its emphasis on building and sustaining quality family time around Jewish learning and engagement is universal.

To Mark Solomon, a member of Congregation Rodef Sholom, the mere act of making mealtime a collective effort, and framing conversation through a Jewish lens, is in itself an immeasurably valuable signal.

“I am showing my daughter that this is immensely important to me, and so it should be to her, and to us as a family,” he said.

By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz, for The Covenant Foundation