By Linna Ettinger
“The leaning tower of Pisa is leaning because it needs a strong foundation.”
When I was a preschool teacher a few years ago, one of my four-year-old students gave me this answer in response to my question to the class to explain why the Tower of Pisa was leaning. Even a four-year-old preschool student knows the importance of having a strong and evenly balanced foundation.
Today, Jewish early engagement is leaning on an uneven foundation and is leaning just like the Tower of Pisa. When our sages wrote, “The world itself rests upon the breath of the children in our schools.” (Babylonion Talmud Shabbat 119b), the system of education was different from what it is today in the United States. Today’s American Jewish community is spread out all across the country in neighborhoods that can have a Jewish community ranging from very active to nonexistent. The quality of the educators and programming available for early family engagement in American Jewish communities varies also, depending upon the level of local community support for programs and educators. Today’s parents of Jewish families are increasingly dual income households, often living a plane ride away from immediate family. In a previous generation, immediate family would have had an active role in the upbringing of a family’s children in terms of shared holiday and milestone celebrations, supportive attendance at sports and musical performances, and emergency babysitting or vacation coverage. However, today children and their young families fill the absence of immediate family with increased involvement with after-school programming of varying quality. Jewish programming has to compete with compelling secular programming such as sports, music, and other performing arts or special interest classes. Today’s young Jewish families need consistent high quality Jewish programming and high quality educators no matter where they live.
Jewish early engagement, comprised of financial assistance to preschool families, increased professional development funding and salaries for educators, and funding for programs to engage young families in the Jewish community, have bloomed in communities around the country with the growing understanding that strong early engagement with families is crucial to establish a firm foundation of Jewish identity both for the child and for young families. Institutions and funders have collaborated to create innovative programming for early engagement to great success in localized areas. Many communities have started offering Tot Shabbats and Hebrew Play. Some programs such as the PJ Library of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation are designed to empower parents with the books and knowledge they need in order to be their child’s primary teacher of Judaism. At Hebrew College, the Early Childhood Institute was founded by Ina Regosin in 1987 to focus on providing high quality professional development and education for early childhood educators to enable them to build strong Jewish identities for their students and their families. Hebrew College’s Early Childhood Institute was created to ensure that the professionals who are running these programs are highly qualified Jewish educators.
While the development of many Jewish early engagement programs is increasing across the nation, the fact remains that the Jewish community’s young professionals are not choosing the field of Jewish education or Jewish early childhood education, and instead gravitate toward professions that offer a living wage, which cannot be said about most early childhood learning centers. Thus, directors of our Jewish early childhood centers are staffing their preschools with more and more non-Jewish educators. Until the early childhood educator profession rises in esteem and compensation in both the Jewish and secular American communities, Jewish early childhood centers will be staffed by increasing numbers of non-Jewish educators. This creates a formidable challenge with regard to creating Jewish identity and Jewish community during the formative years of preschool for both the students and their families.
The quality of our Jewish early childhood learning centers is uneven. Our American Jewish Community needs to learn from the Israeli model of early childhood engagement that understands how social change can be implemented through the early childhood educators, and that funds professional development and pays salaries and pensions to their educators, while offering early childhood education to Israeli children starting from three years of age free of charge in the public school system.
Now is the time to seize the momentum of Jewish early engagement and provide consistent programming for Jewish families across the nation. Many of our young adults have benefited from national Jewish camping initiatives and the national Taglit Birthright program, and have started to solidify their Jewish identity. As our young adults marry and start to raise families, we must continue to help them using a national approach with the task of creating a Jewish home and raising Jewishly identifying children if we want to ensure the future of the American Jewish community.
One possibility for the Jewish community today is to determine how best to share our locally successful strategies of Jewish early engagement to even out the field so that regions that are not as successful can benefit from localized success in early engagement. The Jewish Early Engagement Forum (JEEF) has been established by Rachel Raz of the Early Childhood Institute of Hebrew College. JEEF builds upon conversations spanning two years about how to enable the architecture of a nationally uniform early engagement strategy for the American Jewish Community. This effort is built upon the work of the Alliance for Jewish Early Education, led by Ilene Vogelstein, that was comprised of professionals and focused only on Jewish early education. The Jewish Early Engagement Forum (JEEF) expands upon the Alliance for Jewish Early Education in two dimensions: first, the agenda has been broadened to include all early engagement programming; and secondly, the conversation now includes funders, researchers, foundations, and professionals.
Hebrew College plans to host a JEEF symposium on July 13, 2016 on the topic of Building a Stronger Foundation. To join the conversation and help architect uniform and consistent early engagement for the entire American Jewish community, email Rachel Raz at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let us work together to create an even and strong foundation for our American Jewish Community.
Linna Ettinger is the Assistant Director of the Early Childhood Institute at Hebrew College. For more information about Hebrew College’s Early Childhood Institute please visit: www.hebrewcollege.edu/early-childhood-institute.