When I launched CoHere, I wasn’t truly sure what it was meant to be. I knew that unaffiliated families wanted to access convenient, affordable, fun Jewish education during times and in places that worked for them. I have been interested in the aspirations around community and affiliation for the Jewish world today. I had an imagine of being a travelling Mary Poppins showing up in people’s homes with a bag full of surprising supplies and doing hands-on projects with a family around a kitchen table. I knew I wanted to share major pieces of Jewish literacy so that people could participate in Jewish life and feel a sense of belonging.
The program grew through word of mouth and Facebook, and families started joining who had children from four years old through kids about to have be mitzvah ceremonies. Some families with babies wanted to join. I tried all kinds of ways to give their parents tools for Jewish experiences in the home, but while that was appreciated, it wasn’t what they wanted. I think they would have like a chavurah of about 10 families near them who would gather once a month for a short dinner, service and feel-good Jewish experience that was interfaith family friendly and led by a rabbi they could call a friend. I actually think most of the CoHere families would have participated in this and enjoyed this. In that way, CoHere would have been able to offer a full Jewish communal experience for people. The problem is that CoHere families are so spread out geographically that it was impossible to offer this in a way all or most could access.
The business model was consistently a hang-up. I had no bandwidth or energy to scale CoHere and lacked the business and administrative savvy to handle the books and charge enough to hire a cadre of teachers. I am a Rabbi educator and so the pieces I loved were developing the 18 sessions (9 in-person family sessions which took place over 2 years) and forming relationships with the families. I wrote a journal of weekly reflections people could do. I created a be mitzvah program based off of mapping out 13 experiences to undertake in the months around becoming be mitzvah. I officiated at life cycle events for CoHere families and tried to be present in times of joy and sorrow. These curriculum pieces are available and shareable.
Many other developments emerged from CoHere. I started offering a regular Shabbat Morning Learning Service in my home. Pre-be mitzvah and some post be mitzvah families came. Many families from the two interfaith programs I am a part of also came. This was a way I merged these two parts of my rabbinate. I think this was a unique offering to have unaffiliated children come together for communal prayer in preparation for their be mitzvah and as a way to mark the commitment they made at their be mitzvah ceremony.
I also consulted for numerous Jewish leaders and organizations interested in reaching and engaging unaffiliated families. I wrote articles on the work of CoHere (They are posted at www.coherechicago.com). I attended major Jewish conferences like FedLab to speak about this work. In this way, the reach of CoHere spread beyond Chicago.
In this last year of the grant, I met with eight CoHere families as a group once a month on Sunday evenings. We met from 5:00-6:30 pm. We met at my husband’s Reform Temple. We stated with dinner together. We then worked on a project that was meaningful for all ages, as this was a mixed-age group. We ended with the Cantor coming to sing with the group. There were several CoHere families who couldn’t come to a group session because of distance. One family and I tried to do sessions on FaceTime, but it was too hard. I sent these families the name of a teacher I had spoken with who I trust so that they could continue in-home Jewish learning. One previous CoHere family took a year off from formal Jewish education. Some families started Hebrew tutoring because their child was just a couple of years out from be mitzvah. One CoHere family joined the congregation that was our fiscal sponsor over the first two years. One joined the interfaith program I was a part of.
While CoHere will not become a stand-alone, new and lasting non-profit, spending three years hyper-focused on unaffiliated families interested in Jewish education and life cycle events was a gift that will enhance my work in Jewish education going forward. I also hope that the three years with these families impacted their lives in positive ways and paved the way for them to continue their journey with Jewish engagement.
I urge Federations or the JCC in each community, or organizations to work together to hire community rabbis and educators (maybe the denominations could hire this person). I was essentially a community rabbi in my role of CoHere. This was, in a way, similar to my work at InterfaithFamily. One person can officiate at dozens and dozens of life cycle events during the year and form lasting relationships with families. This person can usher families into different opportunities in Jewish life and be a master connector making new friendships for families.
I still believe that Jewish organizations should start to leverage the work of be mitzvah tutors as a way to meet unaffiliated families and engage them in opportunities of interest. As well, be mitzah tutors may be open to and appreciative of their own professional development. The be mitzvah space was a hallmark of CoHere.
I do think there are ways for synagogues to work with families who *just* want a family friendly, short, yet meaningful high holiday service, Jewish education and be mitzvah ceremonies. However, fees for specific services is a hard business model for congregations, and CoHere families were not interested in joining congregations for more reasons than just cost.
In this last year of CoHere, I have written a children’s book featuring a transgender child. The work of CoHere has been to amplify voices we don’t hear enough from in the Jewish world from unaffiliated families to LGBTQ youth. I am waiting to see if I will work with a Jewish publisher or self-publish so that I can choose my own illustrator.
A documentary has come out that was recorded some years ago about my work with dual-faith Jewish Christian families. It can be rented from www.leapsoffaiths.org
As I transition to my next role in Jewish education, going back to congregational life, I will work with the Temple’s leadership to understand the needs of people in our midst. I’ll take what I have learned through CoHere and use it as I develop a Jewish educational program that feels modern, relevant and realistic to families.
Here are some recent pictures from group projects we worked on.