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The Tribe: Central Mass Pilots new family program

By Laura Porter

Today’s families are busy. As we run from soccer practice to piano lessons, religious school to the karate studio, we’re driving, dropping off, picking up, thinking about the next task ahead. It’s hard to find the time – or the mental space – to connect. And if it’s difficult to protect quality family time from the onslaught of daily life, it can be even tougher to build and sustain relationships with other families – in the secular or the Jewish community.

Arinne Braverman wants to change that.

Braverman, who lives in Needham, has a long background in Jewish youth work and education that includes 12 years at Hillel, both as executive director at Northeastern Hillel and director of Regional Student Services at the Hillel Council of New England. Most recently, she was the director of Youth Engagement for Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) in Boston.

As the parent of two young boys, she has long looked for secular meaningful activities with other Jewish families geared toward school-age children. Unable to find such a thing, she decided to create it herself.

The result is The Tribe, a brand-new program for families with children ages 5 to 9 or in grades K through 3. Now in the pilot phase, the program is by intention both structured and flexible.

From five to eight families will form each group, or Tribe, and will meet monthly in each other’s homes for two hours on a Sunday to enjoy child-centered activities highlighting Jewish values. An optional second outing every month – chosen by each Tribe – might range from apple picking to attending a Purim festival. Once or twice a year, all of the Tribes in a specific site will come together for events.

“Based on the traditional chavurah  structure – families meeting in small groups to ‘do Jewish’ in one another’s homes – the main difference is that rather than focusing on Jewish ritual, prayer, or study, we focus on engaging in Jewish values with our children through games and activities: while together as a group, and when at home on our own,” says Braverman. “As a mother of two boys, I knew from the beginning that The Tribe would need to be an experiential, activity-based learning model to keep kids engaged.”

Flexibility and inclusivity in every sense is the defining purpose here. The Tribe is open to “self-identifying Jewish families of all backgrounds, sexual orientations, and gender identities,” notes its website.

And, in terms of how one defines one’s Jewishness, Arinne Braverman stresses that participants can be as involved or as uninvolved in Judaism as they would like.

“You don’t have to ask, ‘Am I Jewish enough?’” she says. “The Tribe is well-suited to interfaith families or to families that aren’t faith-based. You don’t need to have a particular theological framework. You can be devout, and also you can be an atheist. It’s in the same context as sports; you’ll click with the families you do, and there is no expectation of any kind of observance.”

In each Tribe, one adult serves as the parent coordinator, but every family will alternate hosting and planning the monthly get-togethers. Although there is plenty of support from the program, including a detailed guidebook and a curriculum, the choice of specific activities is entirely up to the individual Tribe. They get to “choose their own adventure,” Braverman says.

Whether the families are engaged in crafts, making cookies or playing kickball, the intention is for them to “spend more quality time with your child, while exploring what Jewish values mean to your family, together.”

There is a lengthy list of values to choose from, of course. After all, there are 613 mitzvot in the Torah. Some potential themes, however, might include performing deeds of loving-kindness, respecting elders, taking care of animals, or peace in the home.

The second monthly meeting, selected by each Tribe and optional, might dovetail with ongoing events or celebrations in the community or give families an opportunity to explore an activity they’ve been wanting to try – together. The purpose here is to “create a bridge for marginally affiliated families to explore existing Jewish resources in their community, with other families they know,” says Braverman.

At least two take-home activities a month provide even more involvement for those who would like it.

To fund The Tribe’s initial year, Braverman sought and received support from the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). The program will begin this October in two pilot sites: the Worcester Jewish Community Center and Jookender, a family-centered group for Russian-speaking Jews in New England.

At each site, a program coordinator will work as a liaison between the individual Tribes and Braverman: Talia Mugg at the JCC and Sasha Grebenyuk for Jookender.

In her exploration of potential sites, Braverman looked first to the JCC community as a logical initial connection for a new program of this type.

“[The JCC] is a door to getting involved in the Jewish community no matter what one’s affiliation or denomination or background,” she says.

In her research, she discovered last winter that the brand new executive director of the Worcester JCC was Emily Rosenbaum, her own former mentor.

In 2003, Braverman was a fellow at the Jewish Organizing Initiative (now JOIN for Justice) when Rosenbaum was the community-organizing training group’s Program Director.

The two women quickly reconnected to discuss The Tribe.

“Arinne came [to Worcester] immediately,” says Rosenbaum. “She said, ‘Everything you taught me is everything I want in the program. Would you like to be the first pilot site?’ It was, as they say, beshert.”

Immediately enthusiastic, Rosenbaum put together a small focus group to make sure the concept was a good fit for the Worcester JCC community.

“It resonated with almost every single person I talked to – whether they had young families or whether they had been a young Jewish family,” she says. “People would say, ‘I would love to do this;’ or ‘I wish they had had this when my kids were growing up.’”

The Jewish Federation of Central Mass. and the PJ Library are partnering with JFNA and the Worcester JCC in supporting this year’s pilot.

Arinne Braverman initially met Sasha Grebenyuk, the founder and CEO of Jookender, while she was working at CJP.

“Sasha was on a bus for the community to visit Jewish summer camps for her families,” Braverman recalls.

Jookender – the name combines “Jewish” and “weekender” – reaches out to Russian-speaking Jewish families all over New England, including Central Massachusetts.

“Their mission is very aligned with The Tribe,” she says.

Tribes composed of Jookender families will be working directly with Braverman, “engaging their own people but in connection with the JCC.”

Right now, The Tribe is currently in its recruitment phase, which will continue until early September.

The Worcester JCC will host a large orientation meeting in September “to answer questions and solidify the Tribes,” says Emily Rosenbaum.

The intention is to launch in October and run through the end of May. During the pilot year, the cost per family will be $36, and participants will be asked for feedback at various points throughout the program.

Rosenbaum indicates that inquiries – and a short list – have come from the families in the initial focus group as well as at the PJ Library Field Day held in May. There is also interest from Congregation Beth Israel, Temple B’nai Shalom and Temple Emanuel Sinai. (In fact, Rabbi Aviva Fellman at Beth Israel has already enrolled with two of her children.) Families in Northern and Southern Worcester County as well as Central Mass., including both Greater Worcester and the Boroughs, are considering joining.

“It’s all about collaboration, and creating that nice warm welcoming home environment for young Jewish families,” Rosenbaum says.

Certainly, The Tribe will provide an introduction to the Jewish community for many families who participate, and that exposure may lead them to choose to become more involved, whether it is through the PJ Library, the Young Adult Division’s social activities, or one of the synagogues in Central Mass.

A key intention of The Tribe is “engaging with less affiliated or marginally affiliated groups” and “realizing who we are leaving out,” says Arinne Braverman. To that end, she hopes to reach out to LBGTQ families as well as others, and to expand geographically as well.

Fundamentally, The Tribe is about “meeting people where they are,” she says. At each site, families will “themselves create the community.”

“There will be very different experiences. When we use a cookie cutter model, it forces people to conform to something that isn’t quite right. With The Tribe, it’s your community and you can make it what you want.”

For more information and to register for The Tribe, go to http://www.jointhetribe.us/.

At the Worcester JCC, contact Talia Mugg at tmugg@worcesterjcc.org or (509) 756-7109, ext. 245.

For Jookender, contact https://www.jookender.org/the-tribe.html.

CAP: Leaders of The Tribe, from left to right: Arinne Braverman, Mindy Hall, Emily Rosenbaum, Talia Mugg, Steven Schimmel.

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