By Rabbi Elliot Goldberg
Recently, I attended a session at an early childhood conference in my community. Attending this session got me thinking about the landscape of Jewish early childhood education. At the session, we learned about a study that described the factors that influence parent decision making to enroll in a Jewish early childhood program. We talked about improving accessibility to our programs by expanding our hours to meet the needs of today’s families. We affirmed the imperative to hire trained educators and commit resources to retain them. We explored the ways in which we could work together as a community-wide system to engage more families and children.
There was strong agreement that Jewish early childhood education is a key gateway into the Jewish community and enhances Jewish life in the home; that engaging young adults in Jewish communal life and learning is a key factor in influencing families to choose a Jewish program; that we have the capacity to engage more families than we currently do; and, that we are stronger when we work together.
Present in the room were several lay-professional teams from early childhood programs embedded in Jewish day schools. Yet, when addressing the room, local and national leaders repeatedly identified us as representing synagogues and JCCs. True, synagogues and JCCs are the locale of early childhood education. These institutions have a strong track record for providing excellent learning environments for young children. Also true, so have Jewish day schools; and, in recent times, a growing number of Jewish day schools have expanded the scope of their programs to include our youngest learners.
Early childhood programs that are embedded in Jewish day school offer children unique opportunities that are not always available in other settings, including:
- The opportunity to build relationships with older children. In school settings, the proximity of older children allows for the building of engaging relationships. Together a three year old can celebrate Hanukkah with a 5th grade friend, read a story or study parashat hashauah with a 7th grade student or collaborate on an art project with a kindergartener. Moments when children are teaching children are precious and have a lifelong, positive impact on children, on the adults who observe their interactions, and upon the strength of the community as a whole.
- Access to specialists and resources that are part of the larger school. A Jewish day school faculty includes content area specialists in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) and Hebrew language. Facilities include gymnasiums, computer and creative learning centers, science labs and art studios. Early childhood students who have access to both role models and human resources that are available in the school setting enrich their overall educational experience.
- Continuity of learning and seamless transition into kindergarten. Students who begin the school experience when they are 18 months old in the institution from which they will graduate after 5th, 8th or 12th grade extend their connection to an educational institution to their first school experiences and deepen their bond to the school. Continuity of curriculum and communication between teachers provide for a smooth transition into kindergarten and enhances the school’s ability to provide differentiated instruction right from the start because the school is already aware of each student’s unique learning profile.
Research shows that there are many factors that parents take into account when making the choice to enroll their child in Jewish early childhood programs, including: hours of operation, proximity to home and work, quality of program and environment and the recommendations of friends. The study that was presented at the conference did not explore the impact of setting; it may be worthwhile for us to study this as well.
What is clear is that we have the capacity to engage far more Jewish families in Jewish programs than we do currently. Synagogues, JCCs and Jewish day schools must find new ways to engage families in the conversation about Jewish education and work together to connect young families to the Jewish community. Let’s get started…
Rabbi Elliot Goldberg is the Head of School of Solomon Schechter Day School of Great Boston, the proud home of Gan Shelanu, Schechter’s Early Childhood Program.