Rabbi Arnie Samlan, MSW, Chief Jewish Education Officer, Jewish Federation of Broward County
Our families and households are the cornerstones of our communities. Each family is its own organization and the heads of each family function as a combination of Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, and Chief Operating Officer.
As any well-functioning organization, a family works best when there is a consensus about what the vision for the family is: what a well-functioning family is trying to achieve internally, as well as how it interfaces with the community and world around it. And as with any healthy organization, a family is most successful when it shares a set of values and lives in ways consistent with those values. These values are communicated both through the day-to-day living that goes on at home, and also through family interactions, including parenting and meaningful conversations.
Here are some thoughts about the types of questions and discussion starters through which families can establish their values and set out to be successful:
• Who is part of the family and the extended family? This might seem simple, but it often isn’t. Blended and extended families and the range of what constitutes a family or household today can complicate the answer. The actor David Ogden Stiers had a great yardstick for who is family, “Family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.” And poet Robert Frost wrote that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. “Whoever fits into these categories is family. Whoever doesn’t, well, they may be important, but they’re not family.
• What are the absolute rules for how family members interact? There are some really good ones. Like, nobody strikes another. Or, nobody goes to bed angry with each other. Name calling is off limits. Or, elders get respect. Most families have absolute rules, but many don’t actually discuss them in advance of the first time they’re broken. But it’s a great idea to have a discussion of what your family’s rules are (and no two families are going to have the same rules, and that’s absolutely OK).
• What are the three most important values that your family insists on? Maybe it’s respect for humanity. Or Education. Perhaps it’s taking care of those in need. Maybe it’s faith (which can be in humanity, in the future, in our country, or in God, if that’s your thing). Love your neighbor is a good choice. Again, it’s each family’s own decision, and a great set of conversations to have.
• How is your family living out these values? It could be through activism, volunteer service, political action, philanthropy, etc. Having values and not bringing them to life is empty.
• What are the rituals, calendar events, and family activities that are sacrosanct? These can be religious (Christmas, New Year, Hanukkah, Passover, Eid Al-Fitr), cultural, musical, artistic, communal. These are going to be some of the things that memories will be made of. And they will be the model for the next generations of your families.
Most of us are not going to change the world. We may have some impact on our communities. But we can have the most impact on our homes, families, households. Beginning with values, we can make a difference there. And beginning there, all things become possible. And who knows, maybe the members of your family will be among those who do change the world.