A Time for Families to Be at the Center

IMG_7420By Linna Ettinger, Mary Lou Allen, Lorraine Arcus, Diana Ganger and Cathy Rolland

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens, (Ecclesiastes 3:1), and now it is time to put families with young children at the center of attention for the Jewish community. This is the message that Rachel Raz, founder of the Jewish Early Engagement Forum, and Director of the Early Childhood Institute of the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education at Hebrew College in Newton Massachusetts, gave to approximately 120 attendees at the first National Symposium of the Jewish Early Engagement Forum (JEEF) on July 13, 2016. Given the increasing rate of intermarriage and the decreasing rate of affiliation with Jewish organizations, Raz made the case that the Jewish community must act quickly to form meaningful connections with families with young children in order to avoid losing more and more families.

National experts in the field of early engagement with families had the opportunity to speak to a representative spectrum of Jewish community members who interact with families. Participants included clergy, executive directors of synagogues and other Jewish organizations, synagogue presidents and board members, presidents of philanthropic foundations, researchers, religious school and preschool directors, and other professionals from around the country.

Two important conclusions resulted from the symposium: the Jewish community needs a national entity that will support and promote the field; and the Jewish community needs to address the shortage of educators and professionals who are trained to work with young families.

Programs for families with young children are growing rapidly, sponsored in local communities by synagogues, JCCs, federations, Jewish family service agencies, and other Jewish organizations. The PJ Library, a national program, has reached many families who might not otherwise be involved with the Jewish community. Despite these developments, there is a real need for greater national coordination in order to learn from and expand successful efforts. A national entity would help to advance the field.

Regarding the shortage of educators, Raz described how she receives regular requests from across the country from Jewish schools and synagogues seeking qualified candidates with strong Jewish and education backgrounds who can fill vacant preschool director and teacher positions. Often, the resumes that preschools receive are from candidates with little to no Jewish background who are minimally qualified as educators. Symposium participants made recommendations for three main strategies for addressing the shortage. First, invest in the professional development of those working in the field; second, recruit and inspire young adults to get into the field; and third, create positions in the field with attractive compensation packages.

Panelists were Dr. Mark Rosen, Associate Professor in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University; Cathy Rolland, Director of Engaging Families with Young Children for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ); Na’ama Ore, Boston Regional Director of the Israeli American Council; Winnie Sandler Grinspoon, President of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, and Rachel Raz. The panelists spoke passionately about the unmet need of families of young children in today’s Jewish community.

“Parents who do not have strong Jewish backgrounds are receptive to overtures from the Jewish community after their first child is born. For about a two-year period, as new parents, they are looking for guidance, support, and connection,” Dr. Mark Rosen said, underscoring the importance for the Jewish community of focusing on families from the very beginning.

Winnie Grinspoon noted that while PJ Library is sending 400,000 books to Jewish families per month, families are demanding more than books for children – PJ Library has recently started to send books to parents to enhance their Jewish learning on an adult level.

Cathy Rolland spoke about how the URJ’s priority is to provide vision and voice to transform the way people connect to Judaism, to embrace diversity and meet people where they are today. URJ’s “2020 Vision” includes a strategy called “Audacious Hospitality,” focusing on understanding the mindset of people from all different walks of life, couples and individuals, as they are thinking about building their families.

Starting in 2001, experts in the field of early childhood have periodically convened with funders to explore what excellence in the field can look like, and several initiatives have been spawned as a result of these meetings including pilot schools, research and community work in cities such as Milwaukee, Denver and New York. JEEF replaces the child with the entire family at the center of early engagement. JEEF also addresses the current demographics and diversity of the American Jewish community, including a large organized Israeli American community. Furthermore, JEEF’s National Symposium gives the community the chance to reassess the state of the field and address the current needs including the lack of highly qualified educators in the field and the remaining absence of a national entity to oversee and regularly assess the field.

The JEEF National Symposium was made possible by generous funding from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. To receive future communication regarding JEEF including access to a video recording of the symposium and a detailed report, contact Linna Ettinger, Assistant Director of the Early Childhood Institute of the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education of Hebrew College , at lettinger@hebrewcollege.edu. The next JEEF meeting will take place as part of the National Israeli-American Council Conference taking place in Washington DC September 25-26. To register, visit www.iackenes.org

Linna Ettinger is Assistant Director of the Early Childhood Institute of the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education of Hebrew College; Mary Lou Allen is an Early Childhood Educator and Consultant in Training, Assessments, Technical Assistance and Research; Lorraine Arcus is an Educational Consultant; Diana Ganger is an Educational and Leadership Coach and Consultant; and Cathy Rolland is Director of Engaging Families with Young Children for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ).