Early Childhood Education Centers Are Revolutionizing Jewish Engagement

ECEBy Cathy Rolland and Mark Horowitz

For years, Jewish early childhood education (ECE) centers have relied on a number of action plans to fill their schools. In reality, though, they are inaction plans, as the approaches largely focus on word-of-mouth. As increased competition, soaring costs, and the impact of government-funded universal pre-kindergarten programs take their toll, we must set ourselves apart in the marketplace – or risk being left behind.

As a result, we – the Union for Reform Judaism and JCC Association – have taken a close look at the quality of our early childhood centers, both in terms of their pedagogy and what the latest research says about both children and their families. What we found revealed families don’t always know to ask for exactly what it is that their children need, so it’s important that we ramp up in several key areas: communications, enrollment conversion processes, and educators’ professional development.

In partnership with the Rose Community Foundation and the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Colorado, we’re working to create a shared vision for excellence in early childhood Jewish education and to ensure our ECE centers will thrive in the future. For the past two years, we have worked as part of a team in the greater Denver/ Boulder Jewish community to enhance our early childhood education centers.

Our unique group includes professionals and consultants from the Union for Reform Judaism, JCC Association, Foundation for Jewish Camp, and outside experts, who, working in partnership, deliberated over and created a cutting-edge, two-year initiative that promotes excellence in such areas as best practices, and family engagement, ensuring our ECEs establish and deliver on appropriate expectations.

Known as BUILDing Jewish ECE, or BUILD, for short, the initiative was designed to guide and support two cohorts of nine Denver/Boulder JCC- and synagogue-based early childhood education centers over four years to increase enrollment, market to and better engage Jewish families, and build stronger connections to the Jewish community. Two years into the initiative, we have:

  • Questioned our operating assumptions
  • Expanded our thinking about measuring success by focusing on the “what” and “why” behind our enrollment trends
  • Engaged “mystery shoppers” and offered family surveys, the results of which enabled our leadership teams to reflect and ask difficult questions about all families with young children, including those on waiting lists and those who could not attend our ECEs for various reasons
  • Acquired a “toolbox of resources” that includes action plans, proven marketing strategies, and wisdom from the secular world, as well as new software and database support that has already improved inquiry tracking and enrollment, as well as website, social media and SEO audits.

In our roles as BUILD mentor-coaches we worked closely with our lay and professional leaders, encouraging them to transition away from only counting children and dollars and instead create new approaches to engage families with young children. We championed them as they experimented with innovative strategies that incorporate what we know these families are seeking: community, meaning, and relationships. Ultimately, these new measures of success frame some of our best principles for engaging such families. With our support – focused on new and different ways to understand and measure success – and a self-reflection tool to aid them as they continue this work, our leaders moved forward in a way that might otherwise have felt risky.

When the first BUILD cohort of two URJ congregations and two JCCs recently convened to share their successes and celebrate their collaborative efforts, it was evident that BUILD had a positive effect on all four organizations, including the lay and professional leaders who dedicated two years to this initiative. By acquiring effective tools and resources from experts in the secular world, while coaching and mentoring our communities, we have created a foundation and model to ensure our ECEs and their host organizations are ready for the 21st century.

Rabbi Tarfon said, “You are not required to complete the task; neither are you free to desist from it.” This is a journey and we have not yet arrived at our final destination. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has joined us for phase II of BUILD, providing a groundbreaking opportunity for our three organizations to collaborate.

We thank our Denver/Boulder funders, our synagogues, and our partner JCCs for taking a risk and engaging rather than withdrawing from this task. May we, together as a community, continue to go from strength to strength.

Cathy Rolland is the director of Engaging Families with Young Children for the Union for Reform Judaism. Mark Horowitz is the vice president and director of the JCC Association Sheva Centers.