Funding and nurturing

Investing early in the Jewish community

Jewish early childhood education (ECE) centers are the heartbeat of the metro Denver Jewish community, as they are throughout North America. They provide quality early learning experiences for young children, employ hundreds of educators and staff, and lift up the institutions at which they are housed. For many families, they represent a critical entry point to the broader Jewish community.

Since the start of COVID-19, however, our region’s Jewish ECE centers have been struggling. The pandemic’s health and economic implications have led to decreased enrollment, fewer teachers and added costs. Many local early childhood centers, which already operate on razor-thin margins, expressed concerns throughout 2020 that they might not make it through the year.

In response to ECE centers’ emerging needs, The Efshar Project – a non-denominational organization committed to improving quality and access to Jewish early childhood learning in Denver and Boulder – and Rose Community Foundation – a foundation with deep roots in the region’s Jewish and early childhood communities – joined forces late last year to support 11 Jewish ECE centers as they responded to the pandemic’s varied impacts. Our approach aimed to address the unique demands of 2020 while laying a foundation for long-term sustainability.

First, each preschool received short-term stabilization funding in the form of general operating grants. This immediate and unrestricted cash infusion allowed centers to purchase personal protective equipment, pivot to virtual learning and pay for additional staff costs related to education and cleaning, while granting schools the flexibility to address other needs and opportunities as they emerged.

Second, in an effort to serve families that want to stay engaged in Jewish life but have not been comfortable sending their kids back to the classroom during the pandemic, we funded innovative pilot projects that created safe, accessible and effective alternatives to in-person education. Co-created with educators and families from across the Denver/Boulder community, the innovations include addressing persistent staffing issues, exploring small learning communities, and investing in outdoor classrooms led by ECE educators offering alternative, long-term revenue streams for ECE centers.

Third, we have worked to cultivate a truly inclusive and collaborative ECE ecosystem, which is made up of a diverse range of schools, educators and families, with The Efshar Project and Rose Community Foundation playing the roles of convener and funder, respectively. The institutions and individuals that make up this network represent a broad spectrum of backgrounds, communities and denominations, each guided by a common set of values and a shared commitment to preserving and advancing high-quality early education and thriving Jewish communities throughout the metro Denver/Boulder region. Together, school partners expressed the benefits of a more coordinated network approach to address common challenges and the value of investing in time to collaborate. 

This synergistic ecosystem is vital to nourishing and sustaining Jewish ECE in our region. More than ever before, families are looking for all of us to join in pursuit of a collaborative ECE space that is guided by our shared Jewish values and appeals to families with young children. We have been thrilled to see a collective commitment and buy-in from all corners of the Jewish community over the past year to work together in new and diverse ways.

Funding and nurturing Jewish ECE centers, and the broader Jewish ECE ecosystem, is the best short- and long-term investment we can make in our region’s Jewish community. They employ essential educators, provide childcare for working parents and deliver high-quality education, while also serving as many families’ first encounter with Jewish life. Not only will these ECE centers be the backbone of our Jewish community’s recovery from COVID-19, but our investments in them today will pay dividends for our community for many decades to come.

Vanessa Bernier is the Program Officer for Jewish Life at Rose Community Foundation, which aims to advance inclusive, engaged and equitable Greater Denver communities through values-driven philanthropy. Kelli Pfaff is the Project Director at The Efshar Project, an initiative working to improve quality Jewish early childhood education in Denver and Boulder. Cathy M. Rolland serves as Board Chair at The Efshar Project and is also the Senior Director of Emerging Networks at the Union for Reform Judaism.