A Parent’s Perspective on a New Era for Jewish Early Childhood Education

By Kerem Szczebak

[This piece is the second of a series examining Jewish early childhood education and a new initiative, BUILDing Jewish ECE.]

Denver parents are fortunate to live in a city with an abundance of early childhood programs. Here, it is possible to send children as young as infants to top ranking early childhood education (ECE) centers and schools, many of which are nationally accredited, schools that deliver cutting-edge and research validated programming for infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children.

As a mother to two young boys, I appreciate the educational strengths of these top-ranking schools. But, I also value the singular importance of Jewish ECE as a gateway to engaging my family in Jewish life. I am all too aware of the need for quality Jewish education and strong Jewish community relationships. Growing up in Denver and spending a good part of my childhood in Jewish day schools, community centers, and camps, I assumed that a Jewish ECE center would be the place that I would want my children to begin their Jewish journey.

So, I chose to send both Alex (now 5) and Oliver (almost 3) to the Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center (JCC) Early Childhood Center, and between both children, we have been there for five years. I had decided that the most important quality for me was a warm environment where my boys would be educated through a Jewish lens, and I was thrilled that Jewish values, history, holidays, and traditions would be incorporated into their daily activities through an emergent-based curriculum. I was not disappointed. My sons would come home singing and dancing to songs from Shabbat Sing, pull out books about Chanukah and Passover to read at night, and ask to light the Shabbat candles every Friday. It warmed my heart to see them embracing Jewish traditions and feeling connected to community just as I had growing up.

However, although my children have thrived at the JCC, I have become increasingly aware of parents who do not regard a Jewish ECE center as a proper learning center, but rather as glorified “day care,“ utilizing the center mostly for its convenient hours. Other parents were satisfied being in a Jewish ECE while their children were young but chose to leave the center when their 4-year-olds entered prekindergarten, sending them to other schools where they could get a “real education,” despite the fact that their own ECE center could offer that option as well and are indeed vibrant places of serious learning. Yet other parents withdrew because of perceived poor customer service, inconsistent teaching, or a lack of family engagement.

These are serious critiques and they present difficult challenges, and as a Jewish parent committed to the Jewish community, I believe they must be addressed.

Consequently, I am delighted that BUILDing Jewish ECE has launched in Denver and Boulder. This new early engagement initiative is designed to help synagogues and JCC’s and their ECE centers grow the number of families with young children they serve, strengthen Jewish identity for families, and become increasingly relationship-driven institutions. In part because of my own positive experiences, I serve as a parent representative on my JCC’s BUILDing Jewish ECE leadership team, helping to identify our goals within the initiative, implement new recruitment strategies, and create a welcoming and enriching Jewish learning environment.

Improving standards of excellence in Jewish ECE centers is absolutely essential. Not many parents I know would sacrifice a good education for a Jewish education. We all want our children to be exposed to the highest-caliber learning environment, in addition to one that transmits Jewish heritage and values. The ongoing mentoring and training that leadership teams receive through BUILDing Jewish ECE, along with our JCC’s professional development work with the Colorado Agency for Jewish Education (CAJE), are together helping educators and directors reach the highest standards in both marketing, family engagement and teaching and learning.

Additionally, with the help of BUILDing Jewish ECE, centers will now be able to better define what their educational philosophy is, be it an emergent (building on the interests of the children), child-centered, or Reggio-Emilia curriculum. In the process of their evaluations, programs will be enabled to also incorporate the most advanced and modern methods of early childhood education.

Distressingly, many parents have a pre-conceived idea that Jewish ECE centers are not educationally up to par with other programs. Once the quality of education has been demonstrated and the curriculum has been defined, it is essential for Jewish ECE centers to strategically market their program. Jewish ECE centers in Denver have traditionally not been very proactive about communicating or marketing themselves. This is all about to change. BUILDing Jewish ECE will enable these ECE centers to both brand and market their own educational philosophies, affording them for the first time a competitive edge with many of the other local brand-name preschools, and helping to increase enrollment, especially among the prekindergarten and kindergarten age group.

In addition to enhancing and marketing their educational approach, Jewish learning centers with populations of young families have a responsibility to create an atmosphere of lifelong Jewish learning. As a parent, one of the most important aspects of sending my children to a Jewish ECE center is how well the school communicates with me about my children’s personal growth and development, and how it welcomes and engages my family in meaningful Jewish learning experiences. Through expert consultants working with each school, the BUILDing Jewish ECE initiative will provide access to the most recent research and methodologies of engaging young families with Jewish children, thereby empowering ECE centers and their host institutions (synagogues and JCCs) to become family focused gateways to further Jewish engagement.

The first three to five years of life are a time of extraordinary brain development. During this period of amazing growth, Jewish experiences lay the groundwork for a lifetime of Jewish identity and create the foundation for all future learning. BUILDing Jewish ECE is vital to the creation of a solid foundation of best practices in Jewish early engagement of families with young Jewish children, strengthening their Jewish identities, and seizing on the opportunity to infuse Jewish education and values into our children’s formative and receptive minds.

Our JCC’s ECE center truly helped shape the Jewish journey of my family, offering high-quality learning experiences and developing our friendships with other Jewish families. With the support of Rose Community Foundation, Jay & Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Colorado, the Union for Reform Judaism, JCC Association, and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, we are now, as a community, positioned to reach even more parents during these formative life stages—and to showcase the many benefits of engaging in meaningful and personally fulfilling Jewish life.

Kerem Szczebak is a member of the Colorado Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative Steering Committee and a parent representative on the Jewish Community Center’s BUILDing Jewish ECE Team. She is also on the Board of Directors for the Colorado Agency for Jewish Education.