While people join a synagogue for a plethora of reasons. As scholar Ron Wolfson notes in his book Relational Judaism, most place finding a community and friends near the top of our lists. Yet with multiple pressures on synagogues to educate, celebrate, engage, worship, and counsel, relationship building seems to fall through the cracks.
Recently our Congregation Or Ami’s educational leadership made an active decision to integrate more relationship-building and more parenting “How To” opportunities into our Mishpacha Family Alternative Learning program. A good decision, it nonetheless led to a complex pedagogical problem: how does one weave content learning, relationship building, and parenting “How To” into one coherent experience? It was a daunting task.
Our solution? Encourage our married (and unmarried) congregants to date.
Speed Dating – Synagogue Style
For this, we turned to Speed Dating, a late 1990’s social phenomenon which spread like wildfire across the country. In classic Speed Dating, two concentric circles of chairs face each other, or sometimes across tables. Assuming heterosexual relationships, one gender sits in the inside circle while the other gender sits in the outer circle. Every two people face one another and “date” for a specified amount of time, usually 5 minutes. Then the outer circle stands up and rotates a few spaces clockwise. Sitting across from a new partners, each pair introduces and dates.
Our modified “Mishpacha Speed Dating” invited pairs to share names, names and grades of children and other basic info, and then to answer a specific question. The questions/prompts, developed from that week’s content – the Joseph narratives of Genesis – explored into issues of parenting. Since Mishpacha program parents began the session reading a detailed summary of the narrative, the context made sense.
Beyond Hobbies and Movies: Questions that Led to Great Conversations
We asked questions designed to spark conversation and sharing:
- As a group, Jacob and his four wives (Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah) were prolific parents, giving birth to twelve sons and at least one daughter (Dinah). We would like to think that he and they enjoyed parenthood. What have been, for you, the joys of parenthood?
- Jacob gave his son Joseph a “coat of many colors” as an expression of his love. We give our children many gifts, and there are many intangible “gifts” we often wish to impart to them. What quality or value do you wish to impart to your child but have found it challenging to do so? Invite your partner to offer suggestions about creative ways to share this “gift”.
- Joseph and his brothers took sibling rivalry and “bad behavior” to the extreme, when the brothers – having contemplated and rejected killing Joseph – threw him instead into a pit and sold him into slavery. Some commentators argue that father Jacob’s silence on the matter allowed these behaviors to fester and grow. What challenge are you facing with your child that you have not been able to resolve? (If you have more than one child, choose one. After presenting, ask your partner for suggestions and advice.)
- Toward the end of the Joseph narratives, father Jacob blesses each of his sons. Some believe the blessings include two parts: a realistic yet positive assessment of the child’s best qualities, and a hope for how the child will grow in the future. For one child, what are your blessings for him or her. Although Jacob’s blessings include some uncomfortable truths about his children, keep your blessing focused on the most positive qualities only.
Minimal sharing followed each Mishpacha Speed Dating interaction because during each of the 6 iterations, the pairs seemed to have plenty about which to talk.
Let the “Dating” Continue: Connecting through Parenting
The forty adults in the room shared a common bond, finding both incredible joy and at time numbing challenge from parent our children. We recognized that none of our kids came with instruction manuals, and that even second and third children seem at times to defy the instruction manuals we “write” as we raise the first. As such, it was helpful to have other parents – and a group of other parents – with which to share, commiserate and consult when the challenges are most gut wrenching. So the secret was out of the bag: here in Congregation Or Ami, especially amongst the participants in our Mishpacha program, we have compatriots in the lifelong process of raising children. So we invited participants to turn to one another – as we did today – for advice and support.
Making New Friends through Risk Taking
Life can be complicated and exhausting, and few of us easily make new friends in our middle years. So here’s an invitation and challenge we shared with participant adults: you have each spent time with a minimum of 5-6 people today and with others at previous Mishpacha sessions. Surely you found one or two people with whom you felt a commonality. Take a chance; date them. Invite him or her for a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, or perhaps lunch. See if there is a friendship that might grow from this encounter. It is a risk, but when it works, it can be life’s greatest blessings.
They Loved It!
That week’s Mishpacha session seemed to turn a corner, providing participants with a little of each, and whet appetite for even more. Speed dating, like many daily encounters, is an opportunity for learning, friendship and new experiences. While we DISCOURAGE people from actually dating, we encourage them to “Friendship Date.” As congregant parent Talee Sands commented on our Facebook pictures, “This was one of my most favorite activities.” And as congregant couple Kristin and Al Brenner emailed, “Al and I truly enjoyed our session today. It has inspired further thought and perspective, and great conversation.”