Code Blue:
A Call to Save Jewish ECE’s

By Diana Ganger

Imagine rushing an entire sector of our community into an ER under code blue. Jewish ECE, the patient, is choking.

If we believe in Judaism as an ethical guide, promoting decency and dignity, I would suggest that as a community we have to bridge the massive gap between the real and ideal. This is especially visible when we examine the grim reality of how we (under) compensate and (de) value Jewish early childhood educators.

What message are we then sending to families with young children?

We know that Jewish family life starts when the first baby is born. We also know that this is an impressionable time in life of the parents and child, as change takes place and gives possibility to deepen learning and engagement in a community. The Jewish early childhood community continues to learn how to become better at responding to this incredible opportunity. Some excellent programs around the country have propelled these families to increasing levels of engagement, as their experience with a Jewish context ignites the desire for continuity with a rich Jewish life.

At the same time as our Jewish early childhood programs strive for deeper engagement, our community continues to bury our heads in the sand as we careen towards self-destruction.

Why the term self-destruction?

Sitting with seasoned Directors in Jewish Early childhood groups around the country, I hear the same repetitive anxious voices: “We need qualified staff, or at least a bit more than a warm body. I cannot guarantee the continuity of care or quality we had in the past. Our institutions continue to “tax” us or ask for rent when we need every penny to pay to keep our teachers or attract new people to the field.”

We all intuitively know what the research makes clear: teacher quality hugely affects learning. Yet, we routinely tie the hands of Jewish early childhood directors in that they do not have the funding to attract and hire high quality educators.

Directors are also overwhelmed by expectations to do the jobs that multiple people fill in any other nonprofit company. Nowadays, directors need to: keep up with the changes in IT, know how to advertise and sell our programs, be visionary leaders and day-to-day managers, be reflective supervisors, social media mavens, of course know child development, Judaism, how to work with families, and the list goes on and on. I look around these rooms and I see fatigued groups, especially towards the end of the year, as they realize they need to spend the summer hiring. If these directors are lucky enough to find the right person to hire, the process of onboarding requires time, energy and resources on all sides. In short, the process of hiring poses further demands on time and budgets.

From an educator perspective, the field is noble, yet impractical. My daughter, who worked as a lawyer at a large Chicago law firm,decided that she wanted to work in Jewish Early Childhood Education as she began her own family. She believed passionately in the power of Jewish education to impact children and families. I could not blame her, as my own choice had been to stay in Jewish Early childhood Education, and I have enjoyed my choice. Yet, my choice to stay in Jewish Early Childhood Education was made possible only because I knew that my husband had a guaranteed income as a physician. On the one hand my heart rejoiced as our field needs her capacities and wisdom and on the other my heart froze realizing that her family would lose an attorney salary. With all her education and experience, she would hardly be making more than an hourly house cleaner.

How will our community take care of these directors and educators that work tirelessly for the good of our youngest families? A couple of directors in their early 60’s lamented that their friends can retire from public school with good pensions. “We have nothing,” another adds that she felt it was unethical to entice any young college graduates into our field. Teachers who decided many decades ago to join the field for idealistic reasons, are retiring in droves.

The pressures are mounting for directors as the economy overheats, and the alternatives to working many hours in challenging physical and emotional conditions are plentiful. In addition universal Pre-K entices our teachers away with higher salaries and benefits.

How will we support the Jewish early childhood environment with a communal vision?

Where do we want to go as a community in terms of supporting families on a Jewish journey?

How will we maintain high quality Jewish early childhood programs by finally recognizing that educators need fair compensations, benefits and a career ladder?

How can we develop a culture that understands that the Jewish early childhood programs are part of a larger vision of Jewish family journey, and not cash cows?

What s the birthright of these families in terms of access to quality Jewish life in our early childhood experiences?

Can we as a community create a fund that will support excellent programs so that they can keep and attract talent? Can there be a national accreditation that will support this notion?

Let’s imagine that world in which we do not tax families with young children with hefty tuition costs (which in many cases subsidize other programs or institutional needs) and where we do not build our communities on the back of Jewish early childhood staff by denying wages and benefits. We need talent so that families can experience Jewish life at its best!

Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh”… all Jews are responsible for one another. (Talmud, Shavuot 39a)

What do we want to have the stories of tomorrow to tell about how we dealt with the code blue of our Jewish early childhood centers today?

Diana Ganger works as a coach/consultant in Organizational and Educational settings. A long-time Jewish educator, she was a Fellow of the Wexner Heritage Foundation and a recipient of the 2008 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.