Home » Coalition of Family Engagement Innovators » Reflections on a Shavuot Family Program

Reflections on a Shavuot Family Program

The Jewish Education Project
The Jewish Education Project is a beneficiary of UJA-Federation of New York


Shariee Calderone & Cathy Deutchman

ShavuotI have to admit, Shavuot is NOT a Jewish holiday I grew up with. I had Chanukah. I had Passover. And I kinda remember Rosh Hashanah. But it wasn’t until my children and I were part of The Jewish Cultural School on Long Island that I learned some of the basics of Shavout: primarily that it was one of three Pilgrimage Festivals, that it almost always occurred after our school had dismissed for summer, and that it had strong agricultural significance in biblical times and was the beginning of the “first fruits” harvest. This last fact was an especially important aspect of the holiday given the school’s Humanistic approach. Fast forward a few more years and I’ve added a few new understandings about Shavuot thanks to my own curiosity, my wonderful colleagues and my work as a Jewish family educator. Bring on the dairy!

That brings me to my colleague Cathy Deutchman and the pleasure I had observing one of her family programs recently. Cathy facilitates the wonderful J-Baby: For Beginning Jewish Families program in Northern Westchester through the Rosenthal JCC and her role as the Director of Jewish Life, Learning and Celebration. She is a fabulous Jewish educator and through the J-Baby initiative has coordinated close to 100 events for families. Cathy works diligently to meet and reach perspective participants where they are, connect families to each other, create relevant and meaningful programs throughout the year on a variety of topics, and engage and support parent volunteers!! After spending time with Cathy and families earlier this month I asked her to reflect on this particular program for us.

Shavuot isn’t a particularly popular or well recognized holiday for many families. What prompted you to do a Shavuot family program?

The date we set for the event happened to be erev Shavuoth. Though not a well known holiday, I think it lends itself toward many worthwhile themes, crafts and food.

Your program was held at the home of a family member. Can you share why you chose to do the program there? Or some of the advantages you see in a home setting?

Our J-Baby events are held in a number of different venues: some public secular spaces, some in Jewish settings (JCC, JCC camps, or synagogues), and some in people’s homes.  One of our Board members volunteered to host an event at her house, and wanted to have it when the weather was nice enough to be outside. She asked to have it on a day she set aside for special time with her daughter. They proudly baked zuchini bread to share with the group. An advantage of a home setting is the informality and comfort that it provides. It also creates an intimacy that helps the group bond.

What big ideas did you draw upon for the day?

The big ideas of the day included: Shavuoth as time to celebrate the harvest  and honor Religious diversity and tolerance.

In what ways do you think this program helped to build relationships between your participants? Was it intentionally built in? And if so in what was it?

I intentionally built in time for participants to get to know one another and “shmooze”. The beginning and end of the program had lots of social time. By asking everyone to share an example of someone they know who is intermarried and how that person has been accepted into the Jewish community, we got to know each other better and teased out the Jewish values of Religious tolerance.  

What part of the program do you think was the strongest?

Community building happened through joint activity of planting together, eating foods of the seven species and dairy in honor of the holiday and sharing personal stories. 

What part of the program would you tweak if you were to do it again?

I’d narrow the topic to discuss the idea of religious tolerance and how the story of Ruth and Naomi nails this theme. I’d be sure to state this at the beginning and again at the end. I’d use different modalities. For example, Shariee suggested blowing up the picture of Ruth and Naomi that’s on the handout and using that as a talking point. Involving the group in re-telling the story by asking folks to read aloud or in chevruta is another way to engage the group. I’d be more specific in the questions I asked. 

What was an especially meaningful outcome or personal observation as an educator from that day?

It was wonderfully gratifying to receive an email form a participant after the program ended expressing how much she enjoyed learning about Shavuoth and how the food connected all of us Jewishly. She said she was inspired to celebrate the holiday as a family as a result of attending the event.  (see feedback note below)

Hi Cathy,

We had a wonderful time yesterday.  It was more than just a play date, it was also an opportunity to practice Judaism.  Just to sit and talk about the story of Ruth, enjoy the food, and getting to know one another was a wonderful experience.  

… that we all have memories of food growing up and it connects us to certain moments, that really sparked something for me.  I don’t have any traditions now, but I want to create traditions and create wonderful memories for my son as he grows up…

Thanks again for the wonderful activity yesterday and looking forward to seeing you at the next one,


Can you share a few suggestions for other educators running similar family programs no matter what the topic is?

I think it’s important to think ahead about your goal and keep it in mind throughout the program, making sure to reiterate it at the end. Make sure to have questions that are engaging and speak to everyone on some level. 

Having food that ties into the theme is a great way to create Jewish memories and provides a model for families to replicate at home. It also allows more time for parents to talk uninterrupted! 

Finally, being someone who speaks honestly and takes an interest in the participants goes a long way toward making people feel part of a community and wanting to come back for more events.

Click here for an article written about the J-Baby initiative when it was first launched in 2011.

Cathy Deutchman is the Director of Jewish Life, Learning & Celebration at the Rosenthal JCC, in Northern Westchester.



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