Our Reading Families

Loving literacy is something we're grateful to share

Saturdays are for reading. Especially lately.

For five hours every Saturday, for six weeks, we – Rachel and Lizzi, the ISJL Community Engagement Fellows –  have been working in partnership with the local library system to engage parents and their children with fun literacy activities in an underserved community in Jackson, Mississippi. We created and piloted a new literacy program, called Our Reading Family, to foster excitement for literacy and provide literacy interventions for struggling readers. We used our background in Jewish camping to write and lead fun and engaging lessons that are all aligned to state literacy standards. The fifteen families who participated in our initial pilot had a wonderful time, and we all learned so much together.

It is not a coincidence that the ISJL is focusing on literacy as one of our primary service areas; Jews are, after all, the People of the Book. Growing up, many of us were fortunate to have bookshelves that overflowed in our childhood homes, and families who encouraged us to be confident exploring the pages. Intertwined in our upbringings were Jewish folktales, woven with morals and often told around kitchen tables and campfires.

One of the lessons we are taught in the Talmud (Kiddushin 29a) is that it is the responsibility of a parent to teach their child to swim, because their survival could depend on it. Similarly, we believe that it is our responsibility to share our love of books and reading, and help others to build their reading skills, because once again, their survival could very well depend on it. This is why we advocate for and actively engage in improving literacy skills throughout our community. There is power in the written and spoken word, and providing the opportunity to harness that power is a significant form of tzedakah (justice).

For most of human history, our traditions were passed down by word of mouth. In Judaism, these traditions gained new meaning when they were written down. Similarly, in the process of recording some of their own family history and traditions, our adult participants discovered a token of their own memories in each shared story. They found themselves sharing beautiful descriptions of lavish breakfasts before church, the first time they showed the neighborhood boys that yes, a girl can play basketball, and the guilt of marching around a muddy lawn in Mama’s Sunday heels. Having taken the time to put these memories to pen and paper, they have ensured that their children will not solely read other authors’ work, but also the stories of their own family.

As we taught and led sessions each week, we also got to learn from the participants. The parents and grandparents discussed their personal experiences involving health, voting, and advocating for their children with our guest speakers. With the students, we revisited familiar stories like Clifford the Big Red Dog through the perspective of a child hearing it for the first time. We got to see the children sound out letters and blend those letters into words and realize that they know exactly what the word means. In one writing activity, the students shared about their families’ traditions and took the time to ensure every letter was formed perfectly so that their parents would be able to read it.

Although they came to the program to gain literacy tools, the participants in fact shared so much of themselves with us every Saturday. We are so grateful.

As with all our Jewish values, it is not enough to simply enact them within Jewish circles. Jews also have a responsibility to seek meaningful exchanges with the larger community. In sharing our knowledge of and passion for literacy, we are continuously expanding Our Reading Family. We look forward to sharing more stories about this in the future!

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