A group of guys got together last week to do what guys don’t always do: chat about parenting. They’re participants in “Fathers First,” a forum started by Rabbi Dovid Hordiner, director of the Gan Yeladim Early Childhood Center at Chabad of Stamford, Conn.

“I wondered,” he recalls, “Would busy fathers come out at 8 o’clock on a weeknight to talk about parenting?” They did, and still do. Every few months, a different father hosts the group, which meets four times a year on Thursday nights, the most recent one on Feb. 25.

The group, which was launched in 2008, largely attracts the fathers of boys and girls attending the preschool, focusing on infants to 5-year-olds, though it is open to the community. Occasional guest speakers in the past have included a school psychologist and family therapist.


The rabbi, himself a father of six, has been very pleased with the results: “What’s amazing to me is there is a core group that’s been coming since the start. And each year, you pick up a few more regulars.”

Josh Levine, who works in equities trading, says he appreciates this easy-going forum that brings men together from different backgrounds to share ideas that are usually directed to mothers. “It’s more of a group discussion,” says the father of Wesley, 7, and Lilah, 4. “The rabbi’s not teaching us as much as he’s trying to get us to talk, which I like because you get a lot of diverse ideas all about parenting.”

Josh Levine and family: his wife Hayley, and children Wesley and Lilah
Josh Levine and family: his wife Hayley, and children Wesley and Lilah

In fact, Levine expresses some relief that his daughter has one more year at the preschool: “I’ve dreaded the time when she graduates, but I guess I’ll still be there in the group. There are some fathers that go whose kids are older or have already graduated, but it’s usually for those whose children go to the preschool.”

Most participants come for two or three years, and really get to know each other. “I’ve learned a lot about parenting, about being a better father,” he says.

Sometimes, he notes, the discussion centers on making traditions meaningful for children, with the men describing experiences they’ve created with their families. “We engage each other, and by engaging, we build relationships,” says Levine, adding that he’s made some friends through the group as well.

‘A Portal Into Yiddishkeit

The dozen or so participants start off with socializing and move on to tackle guided discussion questions and topics related to their children. Hordiner says “they really open up. They talk about their struggles; they’ll discuss family dynamics. They make themselves vulnerable, which means they’re open to growing.”

Marc Nerenberg and family: his wife Shira, and children Elliot and Evie
Marc Nerenberg and family: his wife Shira, and children Elliot and Evie

He adds that “it’s also a portal into Yiddishkeit. There’s a lens of Jewish values and Judaism, and I try to show how parenting roles and practices are rooted in Jewish values and Torah.”

The rabbi notes that local Jewish synagogues have since started discussion groups for fathers as well.

Marc Nerenberg, an actuary by trade, has emails going back to 2010 from “Fathers First.” His 7-year-old son Elliot went to the preschool, and his daughter Evie, 4, still goes. She’ll be leaving at the end of the year, but that just means if he keeps going to the group, he’ll wind up being one of the veterans.

“When I went originally, I had one kid; he was 2 or 3 at the time. Now my children are older, and some of my friends don’t have kids at the Gan anymore; they have 6-year-olds and 9-year-olds, yet they’re still going,” he says. “You had the youngest kids there at some point in your life, and now you may not. It’s an interesting way of meeting new people.”

It’s also a rare safe space for men to deconstruct their roles as parents, explains Nerenberg.

They discuss what’s effective and how they guide their children, taking on questions rooted in Chassidus, or found within secular topics and books with parenting themes. “I think about it all for a week or two, or sometimes even four, afterwards—how what you talked about that night will often affect how you act towards your children,” he says. “So by getting together once every two months, it slowly gets ingrained, or at least makes you more aware of what you’re doing and how you’re acting.”

Gordon Cooper and family: his wife Kahla, and children Gavin and Sloane
Gordon Cooper and family: his wife Kahla, and children Gavin and Sloane

‘A Sense of Intention and Purpose’

Gordon Cooper—whose son Gavin, 5, is a graduate of the preschool and whose daughter Sloane, 3, currently attends—got involved on the recommendation of friends. He also tries to attend Hordiner’s weekly Torah-study class, called “Connecting Through Learning,” which spun off of “Fathers First” in 2012. But with job constraints—he works for a large bank—and two young children, he doesn’t always manage it.

“But Fathers First is definitely something I make time for,” he says. “I feel like whenever our wives get together, being a mom is a pertinent topic and being a dad is less often discussed. So it’s nice to take time out and hear what other people are doing, how they think about things and best practices.”

Hordiner creates exercises and questions for reflection that lend themselves to fruitful conversations, he says, with the Torah as the foundation. “I walk away certainly feeling better informed, feeling more inspired to be a better parent,” acknowledges Cooper. “Because I think it’s something you don’t often think about: ‘What kind of parent do I want to be?’ I think you just are the type of parent you are; still, the group dynamic offers a sense of intention and a sense of purpose.”

He says he plans to keep going after Sloane moves on to kindergarten: “It’s really helpful, both to take time to reflect on what kind of parent I want to be and to hear from others about what kind of parents they want to be.”

Rabbi Dovid and Nechama Hordiner, and their six children
Rabbi Dovid and Nechama Hordiner, and their six children