By Anna Hartman
“The voice of children learning (tinokot shel beit rabban) preserves the world;
through these children, the world is saved.”
Zohar, introduction, with parallel messages in Talmud Shabbat 119b
The rabbis of the Talmud understood something about the magic of childhood. The fate of the world, they said, rests on the existence of children and their learning.
The wonder of this learning is something adults lose sight of most of the time. For parents of young children, the constant struggles to earn a living and care for our families leaves little time to marvel.
Recently I spent a morning with my toddler daughter Libby at the Chicago Botanical Garden. After an hour of exploring the beautiful flowers and avoiding the various puddles the day’s rain had left behind, I unbuckled Libby from her stroller and let her roam. Sure enough, Libby immediately found what I had been avoiding: PUDDLES! On this rare day with no time constraints, I was able to relax while she visited and revisited each puddle, eventually exploring barefoot and covered in mud.
It was one of those days where the learning and discovery of a child stopped me in my tracks and helped me see the beauty and possibility in the world. Sacred moments like this are the hallmark of Jewish early childhood schools.
My home is populated with artifacts recalling the deep, remarkable learning my children have experienced during their education in Jewish early childhood programs: evidence of participation in classroom seders, encounters with the Torah, dramatic play at the Shabbat table, focused self-portraiture every Rosh Chodesh. When teachers share documentation of these moments, they stimulate a sense of pride and gratitude, engendering in parents like me a deeply Jewish disposition – that of HaKarat Hatov, recognizing the good.
As a parent who spends most of her time working and not on adventurous walks through the Botanical Garden, I am heartened to know that my children are experiencing deep and meaningful moments in their Jewish school environments.
As a leader in the field, I commit my time to ensuring that children have access to the kinds of quality schools that are worthy of their potential – as our Talmudic rabbis understood it. Likewise, the educators and initiatives featured in the latest issue of Sight Line are noted for their commitment to inspiring and supporting schools, educators, children, and families in their quest for excellence. I invite you to dig through this recent issue, entitled The Wonder Years – Inside the Field of Jewish Early Childhood Education. Maybe you will be surprised, and certainly you will be enriched, by the ideas and resources you will find there.
I want to pose one question for you as you read: If you knew how to save the world, would you do it? If the learning of young children is key to redeeming the world, then why aren’t we investing more? What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).
Anna Hartman is the Director of the Paradigm Project and the Director of Early Childhood Excellence at the Jewish United Fund in Chicago. The essay above is the introduction to the most recent issue of the Covenant Foundation’s Sight Line journal, which she curated.