Jewish Early Engagement Forum One Year Later: Dayenu? Is it Enough?

Photo courtesy CASJE; eJP archives

By Rachel Raz

Last year, over 200 people participated in the first national symposium of the Jewish Early Engagement Forum (JEEF) at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts. The Forum was created by the Early Childhood Institute of Hebrew College to serve as a platform where practitioners, foundations, federations, clergy, lay leaders and researchers can gather as equals to learn from one another about the significance, needs, challenges and opportunities of engaging families with young children.

Key findings from the symposium are:

  • The optimal time to draw families close to the Jewish community is when their children are young (See “A Time for Families to be at the Center.”)
  • 2/3 of families in the Jewish community are interfaith marriages (“A Portrait of Jewish Americans 2013”)
  • Families are interested in raising their children to be Jewish and are eager to learn more.
  • Professionals who are engaging with families are in most cases not equipped to do so. Many professionals need to expand their knowledge from educating only the children to educating the entire family, with sensitivity to and awareness of the diverse multi-cultural demographics of today’s families in the Jewish community.
  • There is a severe shortage of Jewish educators and professionals, due to low salaries and in many cases no benefits. Since the early childhood profession is not valued in our society, qualified people do not consider it. Moreover, many also cannot afford to choose this profession. The American Jewish community needs to work together to raise the profession of early childhood educator in esteem and financial compensation commensurate with their enduring impact and the importance of their work.
  • More research is needed in the field of early education and early engagement.
  • We need to communicate with each other so the entire American Jewish community can be connected and benefit from lessons learned.

So, what has happened since the symposium? Have we done enough for the American Jewish community? Dayenu?

The following is the work that is being done to leverage the opportunities and address the challenges since last summer.

Helping Families Learn:

Many communities are either continuing their investment or starting to invest more in this field. Some examples are, but not limited to: URJ, JCCA, PJ Library of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, the Foundation of Jewish Camp, The Covenant Foundation, the Lappin Foundation; the Jim Joseph Foundation, The Crown Family, The Rose Community Foundation; and communities such as Denver, Chicago, Washington DC, San-Francisco, New York and Boston.

Training our educators to welcome our beloved friends:

Recognizing that interfaith families are the majority, our educators need to update their knowledge and skills to reflect our modern reality. To make this education possible, Hebrew College created the first Interfaith Families Jewish Engagement (IFJE) Certificate and MJEd program of study. The IFJE program enables Jewish professionals to acquire the theoretical education and practical skills necessary to provide inclusive and supportive scaffolding in the growing population of interfaith families. The program is supported by the Crown Foundation and matching grants of the Genesis Prize of the Jewish Funders Network and the Sy Syms Foundation.

Increased Funding:

Recently, the Jim Joseph Foundation issued a request for proposals for programs addressing Educator Professional Development and Leadership Development. They received a total of 146 Letters of Interest (LOI), 50 of which were in the field of early education. Only a few organizations will receive funding to run programs that will create more qualified Jewish educators. As Barry Finestone, president and CEO of the Jim Joseph Foundation wrote in his report, the Jim Joseph Foundation cannot fund them all, but he encourages other funders to do so. “… 50 LOIs addressed early childhood education (ECE), an area that some in the field have long said warrants and needs greater investment.”

Promoting the profession of Early Education through national advocacy:

Many of those working in the field of early engagement/early education are now devoting more time to share the significance and value of our work. For too long we have mostly focused on the sacred work of educating young children and we failed to see how we have been overlooked and undervalued. See examples of the recent Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) Gleanings newsletter: The Promise of Jewish Early Childhood Education.

Last November, as a conference session panelist of the Israeli-American Council (IAC) national conference, I shared the work of JEEF and the state of the field. The Israeli-American population is estimated at 800,000. As is the American Jewish community, the Israeli-American community is concerned with the questions of how to give the next generation a strong Jewish/Israeli identity, and how to engage them and inspire them to choose to be part of our community. Over 2,000 people participated at the IAC national conference. (see “Who will Guide, Nourish and Love the Next Generation?”)

I recently met with Thomas Weber, Commissioner of Early Education and Care of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. We discussed the state of early education in Massachusetts and in the country as a whole. What we see in the Jewish world is also true in American society. The field of early education is undervalued and underpaid; and we all need to work together to change the field of early education if we want to build the skilled workforce that is needed to build a strong foundation for our children and society.

Increased Research:

As a session panelist in the recent Network for Research in Jewish Education (NRJE) and Association for the Scientific Study of Jewry Conference, I spoke about the need for more research in the field of early education/early engagement. Our spotlight Session was titled, “Research on Professional Development in Jewish Education: What do we have and what do we need?”

In April, the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education (CASJE) announced the next steps in its long-term research project to explore how Jewish early childhood education (ECE) can serve as a gateway for deeper and more sustained involvement in Jewish life. The ECE research program is generously supported by The Crown Family.

JEEF Newsletter: Informing and connecting the community

We created a newsletter to share news and opportunities from around the country. In our latest newsletter, we shared news from around the country and highlighted the work in San Francisco and of the URJ.

Over the past year,

If we only educated more people about the significance of investing in young children and their families, it would have been enough! Dayenu!

If we only did research in early childhood and family engagement, it would have been enough! Dayenu!

If we only provided our educators with tools to engage with Interfaith families, it would have been enough! Dayenu!

If we only provided professional development funds to our educators, it would have been enough! Dayenu!

If we only created JEEF to establish a national sharing platform for our work in the field, it would have been enough! Dayenu!

As we say in the Passover Haggadah, “Dayenu!” We are much better now compared to where we were a year ago. We are deeply grateful to all the federations, organizations, institutions and communities who have dedicated time and resources to families with young children through programs for early education professionals. A lot is definitely being done but there is still a lot of work ahead of us to improve the field of early childhood in the Jewish community. This work will secure a strong Jewish foundation for young children, their families and the Jewish community.

Will we stop at 100 Jewish educators? 10,000 children? Is it enough for us? Let us make a commitment to continue our work to benefit as many children and as many educators as we can for the sake of the American Jewish community. Thank you.

To join the JEEF conversation and learn how you can be part of the change, please connect with Rachel Raz, Director of Hebrew College, Early Childhood Institute of the Shoolman School of Jewish Education and the founder of JEEF, at