Parents and children reap the rewards of informal Jewish education
Studying CommunityInformal Jewish Education

Parents and children reap the rewards of informal Jewish education

Community members give voice to 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study.

Pittsburgh's Diller cohort at the Tel-Hai College at the Diller Congress. Photo courtesy of Lori Wynn
Pittsburgh's Diller cohort at the Tel-Hai College at the Diller Congress. Photo courtesy of Lori Wynn

In a minivan life — the sort of existence requiring parents to spend their days transporting children between school, home and countless activities while simultaneously working, cooking, cleaning (maybe), feeding those around them, helping with homework and doing myriad other tasks associated with the 21st-century family— schedules are regularly balanced, with choices to be made. Demands on time and money, coupled with obligations and interests, dictate lifestyle, with Jewish education often a part of that equation.

Fifty-two percent of local Jewish children in grades K-12 engage in some form of Jewish education, according to the 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study, commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and conducted by researchers at Brandeis University. While 45% of those children are engaged in formal Jewish education — such as Jewish pre-school, day school or a part-time program — others opt for “informal” programs, such as camp, youth groups or trips to Israel. Decisions to participate in Jewish education, formal or informal, are typically made by parents, according to the study, and are linked to the overall Jewish engagement of the adults.

Jewish camping and ‘immersive involvement’

Casey Drucker, of Fox Chapel, has three children, ages 11, 9 and 6. When Drucker’s kids were younger, they attended the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s J&R Day Camp in Monroeville. In recent years, the older kids have spent their summers at the JCC’s Emma Kaufmann Camp in Morgantown, West Virginia. This summer, all of Drucker’s children will attend the Jewish overnight camp.

Drucker, a former EKC camper herself, is excited for her offspring to escape the hubbub of daily life and enjoy the values afforded at camp.
“Camp is great because it’s a more immersive way for them to not only spend wonderful summer days doing all of the cool outdoorsy camp stuff, but also to have some Judaism that’s interwoven,” she said.

During the school year, Drucker’s kids attend religious school on Sundays and Hebrew school on Tuesdays, but between her and her husband’s full time jobs, and “a ton of other activities that aren’t necessarily specific to Judaism” like basketball, soccer, baseball, karate and competitive dance, time is short.

“Camp allows them to get away from the chaos of everyday school and extracurricular athletic life and really get involved in having Jewish friends that aren’t necessarily only from their community but from other communities, while also experiencing Jewish rituals that we, just by product of how busy we are, can’t practice in our everyday lives,” she said.

Drucker’s children are like many in Pittsburgh who appreciate the value of Jewish camping, according to the 2017 Community Study, which found that 29% of Jewish children in grades K-12 attended Jewish day camp between 2016-’17, and 16% attended Jewish overnight camp.

Children prepare ingredients during the 2020 Kids Mega Hamantash Event. Photo by Anat Talmy

With at least 19 Jewish summer overnight and day camps serving the community, Pittsburgh’s families have multiple opportunities available, explained Raimy Rubin, manager of impact measurement at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, who also staffed the 2017 Community Study.

Finding the right fit with Diller Teen Fellows

While informal Jewish educational offerings, like their formal counterparts, cater to diverse families’ needs, the smorgasbord isn’t absolute. Finding one’s place requires work and sometimes luck.

As a child, Lori Wynn, of Point Breeze, attended Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp. She desired a similar experience for her daughter, but between economics and her daughter’s learning abilities, providing both formal and informal Jewish education proved challenging.

“It’s not that we weren’t interested, it’s just that there were all these barriers,” said Wynn.

At home, the family held Shabbat dinners, marked havdalah and celebrated the Jewish holidays, but Wynn wanted more. She came across an opportunity that seemed intriguing: the Pittsburgh Diller Teen Fellows program, an immersive leadership experience for Jewish 10th- and 11th-graders. The selective program enables more than 600 teens from 32 communities worldwide to spend a year exploring Jewish principles and topics through workshops, Shabbatonim (weekend retreats) and seminars. Highlights of the 12-month program include a 10-day visit from Israeli teens, as well as a three week summer stay in Israel for Pittsburgh participants.

“When Diller came along, I just thought that would be something really good before she graduates from high school and leaves the house,” said Wynn. “The whole message of Diller is figuring out where you fit in as a Jew in your community. I just didn’t feel like I could do that for her because it would be like preaching from her mom … I feel like you get it if you’re at camp, or if you’re at a Jewish school, that you’re part of this community, and I just wanted her to have that experience.”

Wynn’s daughter is currently a senior at The University School in Shadyside. Next year the teenager is attending American University in Washington, D.C., where, according to Hillel International, there is “one of the largest Jewish populations of any private university in the nation” — approximately 19% of the 8,827 undergrads are Jewish and 18% of the 6,024 graduate students are Jewish. There is kosher food on campus, religious services and 25 Jewish studies courses available.

Wynn credits Diller with not only fueling her daughter’s desire to attend a college with such a sizable Jewish presence, but helping her find her place within Pittsburgh’s Jewish fold: “She wants to be involved and be out there and I just think she didn’t feel as connected as she did before the Diller year.”

Jennifer Friedman, of Regent Square, similarly touted Diller’s value.

“I think what was amazing was just watching her experience this program,” said Friedman about her own daughter’s time in the fellowship. “I mean, this was really her program, this was not our program. We got to see her growth through Diller Jewishly and just as a person.”

Ellen Gusenoff making challah at home. Photo courtesy of Beth Gusenoff

Friedman’s daughter is a junior at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School and a graduate of Community Day School.

Friedman described the latter as providing an “organic” setting where students and parents could create community, “and I felt like that was something that our whole family benefited from.”

In recent years, however, Friedman noticed a certain distancing. The family remained connected to Temple Sinai, but Friedman’s daughter wasn’t interested in participating in confirmation or attending other local part-time Jewish educational offerings.

When her daughter expressed interest in Diller, Friedman was excited: “Mostly because I wanted her to continue some form of Jewish connection.”

By participating in the fellowship, the teenager not only developed Jewish relationships but fortified an identity, explained her mother.

“She’s really independent, and she comes up with her own ideas, and I love that she’s able to have a way to explore her Judaism that’s on her own, and not something that we’re spoon-feeding her.”

Moving forward, those lessons will prove invaluable, explained Friedman.

“Our kids are going to go off to college and there’s all these challenges about what does it mean to be Jewish, and to support Israel, and I think Diller gave her the faces of actual real people, that she’s now close with, that are Israelis, and that will shape how she approaches these issues that all college kids on campuses are facing,” she said.

Peer travel to Israel

Friedman’s daughter also is one of many teenagers who have participated in Israel travel. According to the 2017 Community Study, 15% of age-eligible Jewish high school students participated in a peer Israel trip.

The research indicates that as with overnight camp, Israel travel is “immensely influential in a person’s Jewish identity,” said Rubin.

Friedman said her daughter now has “actual people she knows — Orthodox, non-Orthodox, secular, this or that, but she has relationships with people. You can’t underestimate the power of connecting with people. It becomes real when you’re talking about issues of ‘How do you feel about Israel? How do you feel about what’s going on in Israel?’”

Diller gave Friedman’s daughter a chance to develop identity, but as valuable as the fellowship was, the family also benefited.

“Diller has this great homestay component. We had an Israeli stay with us for 10 days, and we all got to eat with him and talk with him and meet his family via FaceTime,” said Friedman. Between those interactions, hosting other visiting teenagers from Karmiel-Misgav one evening or simply carpooling kids around, “as a family we got to experience the relationships of being with Israelis, and that brought us all in as a family to access a real connection.”

‘Weaving’ in Judaism

Beth Gusenoff, of Shadyside, understands the impact of informal Jewish education. She and her husband were “both raised with strong Jewish identities and grew up having Shabbat,” she said. “We decided we really wanted our children to have that similar sort of upbringing because of the warmth and the value system that we were raised with.”

Gusenoff is from Rochester, New York, and her husband is from Boston, Massachusetts.

“When we moved to Pittsburgh together, we decided it was important to weave Judaism into their upbringing,” she said.

They have done so by joining Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside, hosting Shabbat dinners and bringing their two children, 6 and 3, to Tot Shabbat. The monthly program welcomes families for candle lighting, kiddush, hamotzi, dinner, music and stories.

“We love that Tot Shabbat is singing, and they make it fun with dinosaurs, and it’s not an obligation for our children. They ask to go,” she said. “They just love it so much. It’s just part of their passion, which is how we want them to approach the religion.”

The experience of Tot Shabbat is similar to J&R Day Camp, noted Gusenoff, as both settings stress different midot (values): “For it to be validated and enforced by the camp, by our synagogue, we love that.”

Jenifer Weber in Israel during the Momentum trip. Photo courtesy of Jenifer Weber

Tot Shabbat and camp also share a commitment to diversity, she said.

“When I go to the Reform synagogue events, and I go to events at J&R, it’s not solely Jewish, and I am learning much from the other friendships and people at my table who are in intermarriages, who are in same-sex marriages,” she said. “We’re all sitting at the same table, having an amazing time at dinner, watching our kids be happy together and we’re enjoying being together. So what I’m learning is we all want the same thing for our families, we all want the same respect, we all want happiness and peace.”

Gusenoff praised the local community for offering parents many Jewish entry points.

“I love that the informal Jewish education here doesn’t lecture to us. It involves us, and we’ve all learned,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot. Even though I went to Hebrew day school, I keep learning with my children and I’m having a blast.”

Jenifer Weber, now of Point Breeze, has found similar benefits in Pittsburgh’s informal Jewish educational offerings. Weber has two children, 10 and 8, who attended EKC for the first time last summer.

“The 24/7 kosher experience was something that’s definitely different from home,” said Weber. “At home, we’re not particularly observant. I don’t light candles every Friday night. In fact, I’m often working most Friday nights, sadly.”

Weber’s children spent a week at the Jewish overnight camp. Next summer, they’ll return for two weeks, “and hopefully the following summer it’ll be more.”

Weber’s engagement with the Jewish community has fluctuated over the years. When her children were younger, they attended the JCC’s preschool and J&R Day Camp. Over time, however, Weber found herself drifting from the Jewish community.

“It was sort of like a void after my last one graduated from preschool. We weren’t doing anything. We don’t belong to a synagogue, which is very sad for me, but we don’t,” she said.

Weber’s relationship with the community changed after meeting Chani Altein, co-director of Chabad of Squirrel Hill.

Pittsburgh’s Momentum participants in Israel. Photo courtesy of Jenifer Weber

“Two years ago, I went on the Momentum trip. It was called JWRP back then, and I met Chani and other Jewish moms,” she said.

The introduction and Israel trip led Weber to begin bringing her family to Chabad, and over the past year, she and her husband, who isn’t Jewish, have taken their children to Shabbat dinners, High Holiday services, hamantaschen baking events, art classes and holiday-related programming.

Some programs meet on Sundays for several repeating weeks. Those offerings, due to their à la carte nature, differ from ones found in a traditional Hebrew school, like the one Weber attended.

“I very vividly remember all of the kids in my Sunday school class, and I’m Facebook friends with a few of them. I remember their families. I remember the little old ladies in the Sisterhood. There are these very vivid experiences that I had making hamantaschen, making matzah ball soup, doing all the things you do in a Sunday school every single week. And while my kids are friends with the other kids they go to Chabad with … there’s not always the same people in the classes, and so I don’t think it’s as consistent.

“I don’t know if they’re going to have the same memories and associations as I had,” she continued. “If I had my way, we would belong to a synagogue, and they would be going to Sunday school and they’d be going to Hebrew school, and they’d be doing all of the things that I did. It’s just not in the financial cards for us right now.”

Even so, Weber appreciates her children’s experiences: “I think that as a stopgap measure, and as something to hold onto our heritage and our religion and our culture, it’s really doing a good job.”

Community is important to Weber, who grew up in Washington, Pennsylvania, and while she wishes her children had more access to a formal Jewish educational setting, she has derived great value from informal Jewish education. Through attending programs at Chabad, and continuing to build relationships with Altein and other Israel trip participants, Weber has discovered her own place in Pittsburgh’s Jewish mosaic.

“Just coming from a small town and always being an outsider, I think that that feeling sort of translated into places where it didn’t belong,” she said.

“Nobody did anything to me to make me feel like an outsider. Nobody consciously said anything or excluded me or made me feel like that. I think that it was all in my head, but it took something like this (Momentum) trip to open my eyes and really make me feel like I belonged, and now I look back and I feel like I’ve belonged all the time.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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