A recently published study by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis, identified a new demographic, of interest to Jewish outreach activists: first time mothers. The study, “Jewish Engagement from Birth: A Blueprint for Outreach to First-Time Parents,” reveals that answering, guiding, and most of all listening to the needs of new parents is a relatively untapped frontier for connecting with unaffiliated Jewish families.
After nine months of swallowing prenatal vitamins and devouring pregnancy guides, Esther Cohen, who is expecting her first baby in December, has questions by the dozens. “What should I do with the belly button stump?” ranks near the top. Though she has many friends and lots of family living near her Encino, CA, home, she’s eager to meet other new moms. “You want to hear another opinion, even if you don’t follow it.”
Like Cohen, first-time parents are filled with questions and often have very few people to turn to. “From the parents point of view their life just got turned upside down. When they have their first child they have no inkling what experience would be like, and their life changes completely,” said study author Dr. Mark I. Rosen, Senior Research Associate at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.
“It is such a wonderful opportunity to be of assistance. It creates such good will. People who aren’t interested in Judaism may be willing to think about attending Jewish events afterward.” At last week’s International Shluchim Convention, Chabad, whose work with first-time parents was highlighted in the study, announced its intentions to take more than baby steps in this direction.
“Chabad’s success is due largely to its emphasis on building personal relationships, and it regularly sparks Jewish awareness in individuals who were previously unengaged,” said Rosen.
Even though Chabad’s network of preschools – up to 161 at last count – is strong and growing, waiting until a baby is old enough for school to make the first contact can be too late. Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, Chairman of Chabad-Lubavitch educational and social service divisions, said shluchos, women who serve as leaders of Chabad centers, are particularly suited to offer their assistance days after the new mom arrives home from the hospital. “It can become an industry full of love, compassion, warmth and closeness,” said Rabbi Krinsky. Experienced moms, shluchos can offer practical baby care tips and guidance along with introducing the family to Jewish rituals and community programs.
Questions about colicky infants are not a new 21st century dilemma, but modern times have left new moms and dads isolated. The extended family that would have sent over casseroles and demonstrated surefire baby burp techniques lives too far away to help. “The Jewish community can essentially become an alternate family,” said Dr. Rosen.
Once parents are located and contacted, the experience in several communities included in the study was that “more than 95 percent respond positively to the initial contact and as many as 75 percent attend follow-up programs.” Successful programs had several common elements: passionate staff, peer volunteers, community leaders who support the effort, a balance of Jewish content, and strong follow up to keep parents involved – like playgroups. Hosting the programs in neutral territory – not in the synagogue – kept religiously squeamish parents comfortable.
Well in advance of the paper’s publication many Chabad programs have been geared to new parents. In Uruguay, Chabad sponsors weekly mom-and-baby swimming time. Taharas Hamishpacha International published “My Jewish Baby” covering customs and traditions from pregnancy through the third birthday. Mommy and Me classes for the under-two set are often the way new Chabad centers dip their toes into Jewish education.
Taking on newborns is no small task. An estimated 50,000 Jewish babies are born in the United States each year.