Part of a continuing series of interviews with people in our Metrowest Jewish community
When Sudbury’s Congregation Beth El received the CJP (Combined Jewish Philanthropies) Innovation Grant last year in the category of engaging families with young children in Jewish life, the temple found an ideal person to fulfill the position of Young Family Outreach Coordinator. Sarah Wilensky has long been active in Jewish education and the Jewish community, earning a a master’s in religious education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. Having lived there and in San Francisco, the Andover, Mass., native and her husband, Ryan, decided to move back to New England to be closer to family. They live in West Newton, with their two children, Emmy (2 years) and Miles (5 months). What Sarah is doing at Congregation Beth El sounds a lot like what we here at Jewish Family Network do: developing a strong and engaged Jewish community by starting with some of its youngest members.
What are your responsibilities and ultimate goals as the Young Family Outreach Coordinator?
At Beth El I am working to develop a vibrant community of families with young children. I am working with families that are already members, families looking to join a synagogue, young families looking to be connected to the Jewish community in some way and families that are still figuring things out. We are looking to create activities through Beth El that meet the needs of our diverse community, activities during the week for families with a stay-at-home parent and activities for the whole family on weekends. We are creating opportunities for parents to do learning both in parallel with their children as well as for parents to learn on their own and spend time with other parents of young children in order to build relationships and strengthen our community.
What made you apply for the job? Why do you feel it’s important to engage young Jewish families in temple life?
I’ve worked in the Jewish professional world for the past 10 years, and I love being able to combine my passion for working with children and families with my love of Jewish life and learning. Once I started my own family, I realized that working full-time wasn’t working for me, and I feel very lucky to have found opportunities where I am able to continue my work in the Jewish world and spend time with my family. I think it’s so important to be able to catch families in that “in-between” place where they often drop out of Jewish life. It’s so easy to disengage in Jewish life as a young adult, and as we have children we often become interested again, but we’re not sure how to jump back in. I think it’s important to have a low threshold for families seeking this out, and I think we can create opportunities that are both overtly Jewish and those that are less so to bring these families back into the Jewish community.
How have you personally sought out Jewish community life for your own family?
“Doing Jewish” is just something that our family has always done, celebrating holidays and Shabbat together, spending time with our extended family during those times, cooking and eating Jewish food. These things are part of what define us. I try to translate this to families that I work with as well, giving them a Jewish vocabulary for things that they may already be doing. Are you eating together as a family on Friday nights? Then that’s Shabbat dinner. Are you donating old clothes and toys? That’s tikkun olam (the core Jewish value of repairing the world). I think it’s actually easy to “do Jewish” if we just help meet families where they are.
In addition to the goals of the program, what are your personal goals in your position?
I’m so happy that this position is working out to be fulfilling both professionally and personally, as I am in the demographic that we are looking to serve. As someone who has recently moved back to this part of the world, I hope to meet other families like mine.
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