An Innovative Family Resource
Metropolitan New York District of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
“Most Hebrew schools eventually encounter the same problem,” says Fred Claar, a former Metropolitan New York (METNY) United Synagogue district board member. “That is, the problem of reaching the parents.” His latest project, Torah Topics for Today (TTT), could provide a practical solution to this concern.
Claar argues that motivating parents to reinforce Jewish practices in the home is one of the biggest challenges facing Hebrew schools today. He claims that “80 percent of non-Orthodox Jews have very little Jewish content in their home on a regular basis.”
Featured on MyJewishLearning.com since March, 2010, TTT provides weekly Torah-portion-based blog posts designed to “empower parents of all levels of Jewish knowledge and commitment.” Each week’s entry includes a brief description of one theme or section of that week’s Torah portion, which is then connected to a relevant life lesson. The blog then concludes with a series of questions to ask children of all ages. The idea is to empower parents with a limited Jewish background in 30-seconds to have a discussion with their kids that is meaningful, practical, and fun.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, Executive Vice President and CEO of United Synagogue, raved, “A wonderfully easy, deeply enriching and modern tool for families of all ages to share in the timeless value of Torah!”
One of Claar’s main goals with TTT is “reaching busy people, giving them moral values that are relevant, and connecting it to Torah.” His own connection to Torah began in 1971, when he and his wife, Joyce, realized that they needed more family time. At that point, they decided to start observing some parts of Shabbat. Initially, their observance consisted of Friday night dinners with candle lighting, Kiddush, and Motzi. Claar soon realized that while it was a good start, it was not nearly enough. So he turned to storytelling.
Claar began by telling Talmudic and Biblical stories, which inevitably turned into discussions about practical and moral values. His two kids loved it, and soon even neighbors’ children were stopping by to participate in the Claars’ Friday night family discussions.
The realization dawned on him that his family’s model could be used by others. His Torah-infused discussions ultimately led to the creation of TTT. Claar soon hired Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, as a writer. He also brought on his wife, Joyce, and his daughter in law, Lois Kohn-Claar, as editors. They’ve since launched their own website, Torahtopicstoday.com, where they’ve posted videos, resources, and their weekly blog.
“Torah Topics for Today has endless potential. Mr. Claar’s visionary project is not just an amazing resource for parents, but also for Jewish educators and schools,” said Rabbi Charles E. Savenor, Director of Congregational Education, Park Avenue Synagogue, New York, NY.”
Fred Claar has spent the last four decades of his life immersed in Jewish texts for 1-2 hours every week. How far can one really get with only 30 seconds of Torah study each week?
With Torah Topics for Today, Claar has made the answer clear: very far.
Empowering Parents to Teach Torah
Rabbi Cara Weinstein Rosenthal
Family Engagement Specialist, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Former Director, METNY’S, “Building Our Jewish Home”
Once upon a time, Jewish parents were their children’s main source of knowledge about Jewish text and tradition. Today, parents often feel ill-equipped to teach their children about Jewish subjects because of their own lack of Jewish knowledge. Although our Early Childhood and Religious School programs do a wonderful job of teaching our children Torah, parents still need to be an important part of their children’s Jewish education to ensure that what is taught in our schools has a lasting impact.
A new online initiative called Torah Topics for Today (TTT) is working to empower parents to talk to their children about Torah in a knowledgeable, age-appropriate way. TTT is the brainchild of Fred Claar, a former METNY board member. Claar wanted to design a website that would “empower parents of all levels of Jewish knowledge and commitment.” TTT provides weekly blog posts written by Rabbi Diane Cohler-Esses, a JTS graduate and a prolific writer and teacher in the New York area.
Each week’s post includes a brief description of one theme or section of the weekly Torah portion, which is then connected to a practical life lesson. The (200 word) post concludes with a series of conversation starters that parents can use to engage their children in a discussion of the parasha and its relevance to their own life experiences. In addition to the parasha-based blog posts, the site also features videos and other resources.
Torah Topics for Today is not only a source of knowledge for parents; it’s a valuable resource for educators as well. The brief, accessible descriptions of the weekly parashiyot and the discussion starters can help teachers bring the Torah’s stories into their classrooms in fun and meaningful ways. Please consider sharing this website with the educators and parents in your congregation. Torah Topics for Today is a featured element of MyJewishLearning.com, can be found at METNY.uscj.org, as well as accessed directly at torahtopicstoday.com. [Now – ValuesAndEthics.org]
WHAT PEOPLE SAY ABOUT THE WEBSITE
“At our congregation, during our monthly Family Service, we take out the Torah, read a short selection of verse related the topics on this website for that Torah portion and then have a short discussion about that issue. We do sometimes one, two or three, depending on the length of the discussion. Great resource!” —RABBI ANDREW PEPPERSTONE, CONGREGATION BETH SHOLOM-CHEVRA SHAS
“I want you and your team to know how much our family enjoys our weekly Torah Topics email. Every week for the past year, I’ve printed it out and put it on our Shabbat table. Every week my husband and two young children (ages 5 and 9) have wonderful discussions about the Torah portion and our values. The questions are very thought-provoking, and everyone in our family has something to say about them. It’s quickly become our favorite part of Shabbat and something we could not do without! Just last week, I forgot to put the print-out of Torah Topics on the Shabbat table. My five-year-old reminded me near the end of the meal that we hadn’t talked about “our questions” yet. You’ve made a tremendous difference in how we experience Shabbat as a family. Thank you!!!” —JENNY SHANKER, ARLINGTON, VA
“I just had to share with you that i am a religious school teacher and every time I lesson plan, I consult your TTT website first. What you are conveying is exactly what I am trying to achieve with my students, it is such a valuable resource. We need to get it more publicly known, it does such good work.” —GLENNA LEE, NASHUA, NH
“I love doing Torah Topics for Today with my family!” —DANIEL ROTHNER, TEANECK, NJ
“Torah Topics for Today is particularly interesting and leads to very textured conversations with the kids and grandkids.” —DOUG ANDERSON, PALM BEACH, FL
“I have been receiving Torah Topics for Today for about a year and eagerly forward them to each one of our kids to share with the grandchildren. I love them. Succinct, Clear. Wonderful message, plus dialogue w/children. I am so grateful for this way of connecting to my family.” —CLAIRE ZIMMERS, PITTSFIELD, MA
“Wanted to thank you so much for the excellent and meaningful Torah Topics for Today. I find it to be accessible, engaging, and on point–perfect for using with families.” —BARBARA WENGLIN, SCARSDALE, NY
“Thanks Joyce and Fred Claar for sharing for sharing their amazing resource: Torah Topics for Today – a great online resource for discussing Jewish ideas and education with your family.” —YOAV COHEN, WESTCHESTER SHALIACH FROM ISRAEL
“TTT is wonderful and approachable. I am passing it on to friends to also become regular readers.” —BETSY BERNSTEIN, HARRISON, NY
“TTT is interesting and informative without being judgmental, and extremely supportive of Jewish education in the home and in our society.” —LINDA PATENT, SIDONA, AZ
WHAT PEOPLE SAY ABOUT THE BOOK
“This book is a great tool to get families talking about character traits and values that are deeply rooted in the teachings of the Torah. We’ve picked topics that are relevant to our family and then we try to connect them back to our daily lives.” —LIAT ALTMAN, WESTCHESTER JCC
“As an organization dedicated to the core Jewish values of chesed, tzedakah and tikkun olam we constantly look for resources that will help us teach these values to others. Values & Ethics – Through a Jewish Lens is a wonderful resource for educators and parents alike. Fred and Joyce Claar have provided us with a wonderful way to teach values and ethics on a regular basis. We can’t wait to use this!” —AREVYUT.COM
“As a teacher I can see clearly that this book talks in a way that young people can relate. It makes complicated ethical issues more easily understood. Upon occasion I am asked to deliver a D’var Torah to adults in my congregation. This book offers up interesting perspectives on that week’s reading that can be “scaled up” to an older audience.” —KEITH SATTER
“An extraordinary book for all ages. For parents to share with children. each page is meaningful.” —JOSEPHINE LINDEN
“Wonderful lessons.” —ELANA WINCHESTER