By Rachel Stein
As a former preschool teacher and director, I was enjoying my role as a parent and lay leader on the “other side” in our preschool at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Illinois. As my two boys happily made their way through our small preschool, I chaired the parent committee and volunteered on our early childhood task force, which explored ways to expand the school and reach target families, many of whom were sending children to other area programs.
In the midst of this work, we were invited to join the URJ’s Community of Practice (CoP) “Pursuing Excellence Through Your Early Childhood Center,” and we headed off to the kick-off retreat, where we met other professional and lay leaders working through their own programmatic challenges and successes. As we contemplated the next steps for our preschool, several points resonated with us:
- Get families in the door before their child turns 2 years old.
- Meet families where they are.
- Sometimes it’s best to dive in and take a risk. Don’t overthink it, just do it!
Following the retreat, we spent one more year attempting to keep our diminishing program afloat before we decided to close the school and find other ways to engage families with young children. As difficult as this decision was, it opened doors to new, innovative, and exciting programming.
Working with our director of education, we applied for and received a mini-grant from Chicago’s Jewish United Fund (JUF) that enabled us to offer a free, drop-in program for children up to 2 years old – and their caregivers – at a local bookstore one Friday a month for four months. Our main goal was to create an opportunity for parents of young children to connect with one another, which we believe is at least as important as (if not more important than) connecting with the congregation.
We advertised this new offering rigorously on social media, in ads in local newspapers, and on websites geared to families with young children – and then, on that first Friday, I waited in the bookstore with Susan, our newly-hired program coordinator, and wondered whether anyone would show up. Twelve participants showed up to that first event, and by the fourth class, we had 25 toddlers. We’d outgrown our space in the bookstore!
Each session focused on an upcoming holiday or Shabbat, and included age-appropriate songs, sensory activities, art, stories, and more. Rabbi Lisa Greene, playing her guitar, sang with the kids before they headed home, each clutching a children’s book related to the holiday that had been highlighted in the session. Holding the class beyond the walls of the synagogue helped us meet people where they were, and attracted non-members who, unfamiliar with the building, might have been intimated about attending an event there.
An online survey told us that, after having made social connections with other participants, as well as with Susan and me, the class’s adult participants were interested in additional sessions, even if the program were to be held within the synagogue walls. We’ve now been running this free program for more than a year, mostly at the synagogue, and we still pack the house each month, both with “regulars,” who greet each other with hugs, and with drop-ins, who come when they can and often bring friends. Perhaps most telling is the chatting among the parents, who talk about going out to lunch together after the class and ask if they will see each other at our tot High Holiday services and other synagogue programs.
In fact, building on the momentum created by this class and its participants, Susan has created a series of other free-of-charge classes for this cohort, including an art class for 2- and 3-year-olds and a Sunday morning movement class for dads and tots, which is also funded by a JUF grant. We initially thought our need to charge for the art class – to cover the cost of the materials – might be a barrier, but we were pleased to learn that through our other high-quality program offerings, we had established trustworthy relationships with participants, who were happy to pay and keep attending!
This summer, we will host two family programs: a Friday night Shabbat picnic followed by a movie screening on the lawn, and a Sunday afternoon event at a local pool. Thanks to that first bookstore event, many families who never would have walked through our doors now have real roots in our synagogue. Indeed, the connections and relationships keep growing – from synagogue to family, from family to Jewish learning, and from family to family.
What more could we ask for?
Rachel Stein, who holds a master’s degree in child development, serves on the youth and family community committee at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, IL. She teaches babies and toddlers, and also enjoys time at home with her husband and their 6- and 9-year-old boys.
Cross-posted on RJ.org.