Many Jewish families’ first entry point to the community is through Jewish preschools
By Rabbi Sarah Meytin and Aliza Plotkin
With more parents working full-time outside the home, the need to provide high quality early care and education has grown.
A 2018 Study by Harvard proved what many already knew, having access to high quality early childhood education sets children up for success by improving the needed cognitive and social skills. In addition to the direct benefit for children, offering high quality Jewish preschool experiences has served the Jewish community in many ways: fostering support for more women to enter and stay in the workforce while also raising children, providing an “on ramp” for Jewish families to enter into Jewish communal life, and often giving unaffiliated and families across the spectrum of affiliation a safe and easy way to learn and practice new Jewish skills in their homes. We see this in the recent study released by CASJE Early Childhood Project “Exploring Associations Between Early Care, Education and Engagement.
The challenge for Jewish institutions and families, even before the COVID-19 crisis, has been how to make our high quality programs affordable to families. Often, programs are “subsidized” by the host institution, which does not pass on the full burden of overhead costs to the preschools because, in turn, the preschools feed their membership. Programs operate on razor thin margins that often only allow for salaries that can be best defined as poverty level. These wages, often just above minimum wage or otherwise less than the “living wage” in the local community, help to keep costs just within the reach of our middle-income families. These teachers, who themselves may not be Jewish, are committed to ensuring that the children in their care receive the best possible Jewish early care education they can provide. Often, they provide this high-quality care while denying the same education to their own children; many staff cannot afford to send their own children to the programs in which they work, even with staff discounts of up to 50%. They are passionate and love their work, and are committed to our community.
In the age of COVID-19, as programs have temporarily or permanently shuttered, the burden of balancing family and professional needs that falls disproportionately on women – both the women in our community who seek care for their children and the women who provide that care – has become exacerbated. A spotlight now shines on how the system was already broken for both our families and our educators. With the crushing additional impact of COVID-19, our community may never recover.
Women, afraid to send their children back to preschools or facing the closure of preschools that can’t afford to stay open, are the ones most likely to reduce their hours or drop out of the workforce entirely. This upending of women’s professional careers diminishes their long term earning potential as they fall off the professional escalator. It hurts our women, and it hurts our families. It also hurts our Jewish institutions.
Faced with declining memberships and families with lower earnings and job losses, Jewish institutions will not be able to continue to subsidize the preschools in their midst. The lack of support for young children will spiral. As fewer families are engaged in Jewish preschools, their host synagogues and JCCs will lose the short and long term financial support their budgets have grown to depend on. Jewish institutions will face an uncertain future, and many may end up shuttering permanently. Already we have started to see this impact, and short and long term our whole community will suffer from the loss of women’s leadership.
The impact on Jewish families and Jewish life is potentially just as severe. As fewer Jewish families are engaged in Jewish institutions, they will lose an opportunity for fun, engaging, and hands-on Jewish learning through their children. Families that might have rejoiced in a challah made at preschool each week, a hanukkah designed in clay, or a tzedakah project to collect food for the local food pantry, may never develop the rituals of bringing in Shabbat each week, welcoming holiday guests, and finding ways to support the community through Tzedakah. While the rituals may fall by the wayside, we know that many Jewish families are likely to still give charity or donate their time. They just might not use the language of tikkun olam, tzedakah, and mitzvah to describe their actions.
The early childhood educators who have grown to love and depend on our community for their employment and livelihoods face a bleak future. Salaries can’t afford to be cut further. Most of our teachers receive few if any benefits already, so cutting those to balance budgets isn’t an option. As preschool enrollment declines, on average 67% across the country, there won’t be jobs for the teachers who lose their jobs. These educators, a majority women, many who are often either elderly or women of color, and who have dedicated their lives to raising our Jewish children will be irreparably harmed by the loss of our early care and education programs. We owe them more than a kind nod and a salute out the door.
So what can we do?
- Recognize that the childcare crisis is not *just* a women’s rights concern, but also children’s rights, human rights, and Jewish community issues as well.
- Utilize Federations across the country to centralize fundraising to specifically support Jewish ECE programs
- Work with lawmakers on the national, state, and local levels to bring an immediate infusion of stabilizing funds to the industry
- Work with lawmakers to establish dedicated and ongoing funding streams to ensure long-term viability of the field
- Encourage the unionization of the ECE workforce to negotiate robust benefits for educators across the field.
- Promote woman-friendly and family-friendly policies throughout our institutions, that include paid parental leave, health care, retirement, disability benefits and unemployment benefits for all employees and staff.
These are simply few of the ways we can create a change. There are many other opportunities for individuals to engage and be vocal advocates within their local Jewish institutions for the survival of our beloved programs that serve our youngest community members.
Rabbi Sarah Meytin (pronouns: she/her/hers) has worked in early childhood education since 2009. She is also an alumna of the Jewish Early Childhood Leadership Institute (JECELI). Sarah is currently the Director of the Bender Early Childhood Center in Rockville, MD. Prior to this position, Sarah was a classroom teacher, assistant preschool director, and director of early childhood education in other Jewish early childhood centers. She is an ordained rabbi with a Master of Social Work and a Bachelor of Arts in Religion. Sarah lives in Silver Spring, MD with her wife, Rachel, and their two children, Coby and Ruthie.
Aliza Plotkin (pronouns: she/her/hers) is an early childhood education and family engagement consultant, facilitator and coach, who lives in Houston Texas with her husband, Jason and their son Isaac. She is a member of the Board of Directors for the National Council of Jewish Women, Inc. Originally from the Washington, DC suburbs she is a 2006 graduate of Frostburg State University.
Organization affiliations are listed for identification purposes only. The views stated are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of affiliated employers or organizations.