By Rabbi Danny Burkeman
When you become a Rabbi at a synagogue, one of the first questions you get asked is “What should we call you?” For me it was an easy question. Rabbi Burkeman sounded like one of the old Jewish studies teachers I had at my Jewish elementary school, so I decided to be Rabbi Danny. This gave my name a sense of youth, vitality, and relatability (or at least that’s what I hoped). But recently I’ve received a new name. My daughter Gabby is now one of the students in our synagogue’s Early Childhood Center (ECC). As I’ve come to visit her class, she calls me Daddy and at school, for her and her classmates, my names have been combined so that I am now “Rabbi Daddy” for 12 of the youngest members of our synagogue.
Prior to Gabby’s arrival, I already loved our synagogue’s ECC. Every day I would hear the children singing their songs as they walked along the corridor from their classrooms to one of our halls. I can’t count the number of times that I have heard the children singing: “Put your finger on the wall in the hall,” it could almost serve as the ECC theme song, with “Hold the railing” coming in a close second. And while these earworm songs always get stuck in my head, I absolutely love hearing them.
I love it because, thanks to our ECC, the corridors of our synagogue are always alive with the sound of young children. I love it because, as one of the Rabbis, I have the chance to engage with the children and their families at such a formative time in their lives. And most importantly, I love it because these children grow up feeling completely at home in the synagogue and with a Rabbi in their lives.
I have appreciated the value of the ECC not just from the exchanges that take place while we are in the synagogue, but from the interactions we have outside of the building. When I go out with my family to eat in one of our local restaurants, there will often be children from surrounding tables who whisper something to their parents, before eventually waving in my direction, and then in many cases coming over to say hi to their Rabbi. While I’m unsure they could articulate it, they feel a connection with their Rabbis, the synagogue, and their Judaism because we are a central and visible part of their daily lives.
In the last year, my connection to the Early Childhood Center has changed. I am no longer just one of the Rabbis, but I am also one of the parents. I was there on the opening day this year, not to welcome new families, but to meet with Gabby’s teachers. I have been there at drop off and pick up, I have attended the parent-teacher conference, and now I truly appreciate how special a synagogue Early Childhood Center can be.
I am sure that with a Rabbi and a Jewish Educator as her parents, Gabby was always going to receive a significant part of her Jewish education from us. Yet with the ECC, we now have the best partners I could have asked for in her teachers. I didn’t really know what to expect, but what has become clear to me is that Judaism permeates every area of life in our ECC and our children are therefore receiving the strongest building blocks of their Jewish identity at such an early and important age.
Sitting in the car on our drive home, Gabby will suddenly start singing one of the new Jewish songs she learned that week. Around Chanukah, she learned so many songs that we could fill the longest car rides without any repeats. As one of my personal favorites, she kept on reworking the song “O Chanukah, O Chanukah come light the Menorah”, so that everyone and everything (even the local Christmas tree) were lighting the Menorah. The songs were cute, but going deeper, the ECC was providing her with a real connection to the festival through music and a basic understanding of the story. She still sings the songs, she still asks about sufganiyot (donuts), and she is already looking forward to Chanukah next year for reasons in addition to gifts.
And on a weekly basis, Gabby looks forward to Shabbat both at home and at school. On Friday morning, she is the one who reminds me that she needs some money for Tzedakah, which is the first part of their weekly celebration. Every week they celebrate Shabbat, sitting around the table with toy candles, drinking grape juice, and eating challah. On one Friday evening, when we were at home making Kiddush, Gabby started singing the blessing over the challah. She had heard us say this blessing, but it was at school that she actually learned the words to be able to recite it herself. I love that Shabbat is not just a weekly highlight at home, but also a highlight and focal point of her school week.
There have been many studies about the significance of a day school education as a predictor of future Jewish identity, but I am interested to know what research has been done on the impact of a Jewish preschool education. When I meet with B’nei Mitzvah students and discuss their connection to Judaism and the synagogue, many of them still talk about the ECC as an important part of their Jewish identity. The impact reaches beyond the students, to their parents who are engaging with the Jewish community and building relationships that will hopefully remain with them as their children grow.
For me, I’ve loved the Early Childhood Center as a Rabbi of the synagogue, and I love it even more as a parent at the synagogue. I am honored to be Rabbi Daddy, and the truth is, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Rabbi Danny Burkeman is a member of the rabbinic team at The Community Synagogue, Port Washington, New York.