Teach your children well

EarlyJ initiative looks to tackle Jewish early childhood education, first in the Bay Area, then beyond

Rodan and Koum Family Foundations contribute combined $12 million for initiative to strengthen Jewish preschools throughout the San Francisco area

With the goal of transforming the reach and quality of Jewish early childhood education (ECE) across the San Francisco Bay Area, The Rodan Family Foundation and The Koum Family Foundation have teamed up: The two foundations recently announced EarlyJ, a new joint philanthropic venture aimed at transforming the reach and quality of Jewish ECE across the Bay Area. 

The foundations have seeded this work, which launched in April, with a combined $12 million over five years, in addition to $2 million raised for early East Bay pilot projects, some of which are still running. The initiative seeks additional funding partners to contribute to a $13.5 million balance, to fully fund this work over the next five years. 

“We see this as a national, very urgent and pressing need. Every community is facing some of these challenges in one way or another,” Elana Rodan Schuldt, president and CEO of The Rodan Family Foundation, told eJewishPhilanthropy. Transforming early childhood education, she added, means tackling several problems at once: enrollment, teacher compensation and retention, accessibility and family engagement and testing the holistic model “within one hyper-local community to create change” in the early childhood field.

Early childhood education (ECE) can be a Jewish child’s first formal exposure to Jewish concepts, Jewish values and Hebrew, potentially providing the bedrock for Jewish identity. But ECE is in trouble: according to a study on early childhood educators’ compensation from Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism (ECE-RJ) and partners, “without meaningful changes, including higher-quality job opportunities and appropriate compensation, the [ECE] sector will struggle to return to its pre-pandemic size.”

Yana Kalika, president of The Koum Family Foundation, stressed the partnership’s collaborative approach to remaking the field, adding that the foundation has invested “a lot of time to meet with funders and communities” about projects that have worked and the challenges they’ve faced. “It’s going to take us all coming together” to try new approaches and “thoughtfully investing in the work to transform Jewish ECE, but it can be done,” Kalika said. 

Consultant, researcher and former Brandeis professor Mark Rosen told eJP he speculated that such substantial funding would be best allocated to creating new locations that are close to where parents live, and hiring trained staff at competitive salaries. 

“If you can use philanthropic dollars to increase salaries to attract staff and also lower tuition costs to attract families, you have the potential to really enhance enrollment. That’s where the philanthropic dollars will make the biggest difference,” Rosen said. This kind of philanthropic infusion is “a jumpstart philosophy,” he added, “where you can start that way and you have to tweak to make it sustainable. If you can get the enrollment numbers up, then you can potentially have a sustainable model. But to start from scratch without the philanthropic dollars, you have a real balancing act between salaries and tuition costs.”

Rodan Schuldt said that EarlyJ’s efforts can be applied in “nearly every other Jewish community in the country” if they can raise the necessary funding, because while ECE challenges may have different local nuances, the solutions will be similar. 

“We see an opportunity to build a national conversation around what’s working and what we can learn from each other,” Rodan Schuldt said.

After starting in the SF East Bay Area in 2019 as a hyperlocal project called the “East Bay ECE Initiative” and with a few years of grantmaking experience and some initial results indicating the need for expansion, the two foundations partnered to expand the program across the Bay Area and named it “EarlyJ.”

“Among the most important focus areas of The Koum Family Foundation is to strengthen Jewish identity and create a lifelong connection to Jewish life,” said Kalika. “We firmly believe that investing in Jewish Early Childhood Education in the Bay Area is not just an investment in the next generation, but in the very fabric of our heritage. Together, we can shape a future where our Jewish children embrace their cultural identity, build strong Jewish foundations, and become compassionate leaders who will carry the torch of Jewish values forward.”

Koum and Rodan are young on two counts: in terms of when they were founded — Koum in 2016 and Rodan in 2018 — and in terms of leadership — with key personnel in their 30s and 40s. As newer entities in the philanthropic scene, the two foundations are able to bring a very responsive, entrepreneurial approach, Rodan Schuldt added.

“We look at Jewish life holistically, starting from very young ages going all the way to the elderly,” said Iryna Gubenko, director of programs at The Koum Family Foundation. “The way we operate is very similar [to The Rodan Family Foundation] and the way we think; it’s young funders who are willing to really dive deep and go fast,” she added. 

To better understand the landscape of East Bay Jewish life, Rodan hired Rosov Consulting to mine the 2017 Federation Community study and conduct some additional research. The new data revealed that, with a total of 671 preschoolers enrolled across the 15 schools that participated in the study, current ECE efforts are only reaching 5% of the Jewish families in the East Bay area. With the joint support of the two foundations, EarlyJ aims to reach 25% of Bay Area Jewish families with preschool-age children by 2027, serving an additional 10,000 children and their families overall.

“We were really motivated to put a stake in the ground and say that that was one of our top priorities as a foundation. And every grant we’ve made, relationship we’ve built, and experience we’ve had in this sector has reinforced the power of this work, and the deep connection between thriving ECE and a strong Jewish future,” Rodan Schuldt added. 

Sharona Israeli-Roth, EarlyJ’s founding president and executive director and a native of Israel who has called San Francisco home for almost 25 years, brings to this new role more than two decades of Jewish educational leadership, with a history of building innovative new programs, such as the OFEK Learning Hub at the Israeli American Council. In the months ahead, she will build the EarlyJ team with experienced ECE professionals who also “have the mindset of a startup to enable multidirectional thinking about advancing ECE,” she told eJP. 

“How can we take what exists and build on it? And who are the people that will be key players for us in this process? We’re looking for people who think outside of the box, who understand education and Jewish life, and will be able to think about the big picture but also the small details,” Israeli-Roth said.

“EarlyJ will be successful to the extent it takes into consideration how parents make preschool choices,” said Rosen. “It doesn’t matter where we’re talking about geographically, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas…it’s the same factors,” he said. In a 2015 study he conducted, Rosen identified location, hours, cost, educator quality and ambiance as primary factors in parental considerations, before the Jewish content even comes up. 

“Jewish content doesn’t play a big role in the initial decision [by unaffiliated Jewish families] but once they get a taste of their child being in a Jewish preschool, they like that,” he said, “they felt that their child brings home something of value. So if you attract the unaffiliated Jewish parents to Jewish preschools, there will be a benefit to their Jewish trajectory moving forward. But if you want to get them in the door initially, they’re not attracted to the Jewish aspect of it…Convenience factors are front and center… if [the school] is Jewish, it’s a nice bonus.” 

As Rodan Schuldt explained, the ECE ecosystem is complex and multifaceted; in addition to expanding ECE’s reach in the East Bay and investing in teachers to stanch the flow of staffing turnover in these schools, another challenge is to meet families where they are. Because more than 65% of East Bay families have two parents working full-time, schools with early and late care and minimal closures over the summer are in high demand and have waitlists, while other schools are having a harder time filling student seats. And field-wide, schools were having trouble filling new teacher spots.

“The qualified pool was shrinking. And so we saw an urgent need to retain our strong teachers and to build the pipeline,” Rodan Schuldt said. One way EarlyJ is addressing this need is through a pilot partnership with the American Jewish University’s Master of Arts in Education in Early Childhood Education (MAEd ECE), which yielded 10 educators with master’s degrees who will receive an annual pay increase because of their affiliation with the program.

Jodi Gladstone, director of early childhood education at Congregation Bethel in Berkeley, Calif., is a graduate of the AJU master’s program, which had previously been run by the Early Childhood Initiative as part of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, but which is now under the aegis of EarlyJ. Gladstone said the program gave her “real-time resources and knowledge to bring to her staff” at Bethel Nursery School, and that the cohort experience gave her “a much greater support system than being on my own.”

EarlyJ has also given year-end bonuses to educators in appreciation of their above-and-beyond efforts during COVID, and worked with PJ Library connectors to help build community among parents, Rodan Schuldt said. “We’re now scaling all of these initiatives and ideas and adapting them to new community needs.”

New, diverse offerings — like Jewish Montessori schools or Spanish Immersion preschools — may help strengthen Bay Area ECE, Rodan Schuldt said. Small gestures — like teacher appreciation and recognition — “have paid dividends way beyond anything we could have imagined,” she added. 

However, Rodan Schuldt added, while philanthropy can play a role in catalyzing change for things like tuition, professional development and start-up costs associated with expanding preschool hours, she said, “it’s unsustainable for philanthropy to solve the problem on its own; the change has to come at the institutional level.”

“We’re trying to be a catalyst for progress,” Rodan Schuldt said. “That comes from changing how the host organizations… look at early childhood education — how they understand the value proposition, how they think about investing back in the quality of their programs, and how they see this as a time to build lifelong relationships with new families,” she added.