Another Kind of Birthright

By Rachel Raz

Birthright Israel, or Taglit in Hebrew, has made a lasting impact on hundreds of thousands of participants and their families since the program started in 1999. I saw how my daughter and her friends and college students from across the country were positively transformed and connected to the global Jewish People through Birthright. I also saw the lasting impression Birthright made on IDF soldiers matched with Birthright groups, such as my niece and family friends in Israel, inspiring other Israelis to pursue participation with the prestigious Birthright experience in order to form lasting and meaningful social connections with Jews all around the world.

Recently, while participating at a seminar at the International Loris Malaguzzi Center in Reggio Emilia, Italy, I was reminded of another kind of birthright: the right of a child to be heard, valued and treated as an equal citizen of our society. During opening remarks, the speaker spoke about the centrality of “The rights of the child” or in other words, a child’s birthright. At Reggio Emilia, the rights of the child, or birthright, referred specifically to the rights of young children, a concept also found in the writing of Jewish Polish pedagogue Dr. Janus Korczak (1878-1942) who ran an orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto, and authored several books including “How to Love a Child” and “The Child’s Right to Respect” – books that express Dr. Korczak’s understanding that children’s natural moral nature needs to be nurtured in order to enable them to pursue justice as adults. The Reggio Emilia seminar’s focus on the rights of the child are very much in keeping with Dr. Korczak’s philosophy of teaching.

In addition to the focus on the rights of the child, the Reggio Emilia seminar was an opportunity for over 50 Jewish educators working in Jewish communities from the United States and Israel to learn how the internationally recognized city successfully rebuilt their community after its destruction of World War II. Reggio Emilia rebuilt their community by investing in high quality, public early childhood education starting at birth. The Reggio Emilia community understands the importance of creating a strong moral community foundation by focusing on children. The seminar was led by Mara Bier (Private Consultant, Former Senior Educator Early Childhood, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington) and Dr. Naama Zoran (Reggio Children International Representative for the State of Israel) who established the unique initiative of focused seminars entitled: “Exploring Reggio Through a Jewish Perspective.” This particular seminar included participants from Washington DC, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Israel. I was fortunate to join this group and study from and with them. We learned that the educators, politicians, parents, and experts in the field living in Reggio Emilia all work holistically together to create one of the best early childhood education systems in the world. Reggio Emilia invests in their educators, showing them respect and appreciation, and has become an internationally recognized center for early childhood education. The Reggio Emilia approach is a compelling model for the Jewish community to emulate, in another kind of Birthright program. Perhaps the next Jewish Birthright program can be a free Jewish preschool experience, Birthright trips for educators, year-long seminars for educators and/or Master degree in Jewish Education.

While attending the Reggio Emilia seminar, it was inspiring to see how dedicated the Jewish communities of Washington DC, Pittsburgh and Chicago are to safeguarding the rights of children. In addition to the intense daily seminar schedule offered by the educators of Reggio Children the participants attended daily reflections and breakout sessions led by Dr. Naama Zoran and Mara Bier as well as mentoring by the Federation Early Childhood leaders who traveled with their region’s educators, taking time before and after the intense daily seminar and during meals to mentor and strengthen their educators through continuing reflection and self-assessment. Sharon Sherry (Director, Early Childhood and Family Engagement Specialist at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington), Carolyn Linder (Director, Early Childhood Education at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh) and Jenna Turner (Director, The Early Childhood Professional Learning for the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago) and educators from their groups celebrated Shabbat and Havdallah together, studied Jewish texts, delved into deep conversations, and came out of the seminar full of new insight and energy to give back to their home communities to make a difference in children’s lives.

Developing knowledgeable, skillful, intentional, authentic educators is not an easy or quick task but rather requires long term investment that I am familiar with through my work at the Early Childhood Institute of Hebrew College. I would like to thank all the federations, foundations, donors, congregations and leaders in Washington DC, Pittsburgh, and Chicago for their important investment in educators and for guarding the rights of our children through investment in educators. Like the community in Reggio Emilia, Italy, they are models for other Jewish communities around the world to emulate. Yashar Koach, may you go from strength to strength and continue to actualize the teaching and legacy of Dr. Janus Korczak, who was a role model for teachers and an advocate for the right of children to be heard, valued, respected, nurtured and treated as equal citizens of our society.

Rachel Raz is Director of the Early Childhood Institute, Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education, Hebrew College, MA; Founder of JEEF, Jewish Early Engagement Forum.