New Study Shows Promise of Jewish Early Care and Education for Greater and Long-Term Involvement in Jewish Life Among Families with Young Children

A study from CASJE (Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education) at George Washington University, led by a research team from Child Trends together with a researcher at Brandeis University, offers new and deep insights into how Jewish early care and education (ECE) can serve as a gateway for greater and long-term engagement in Jewish life. Funded by the Crown Family Philanthropies, Exploring the Associations between Jewish Early Care and Education and Jewish Engagement: Research to Inform Practice, is the first rigorous investigation of Jewish engagement among families with young children and the role of Jewish ECE in their lives.

Key contributions and findings from the CASJE Early Research Project include:

1. The development of a multidimensional definition of Jewish engagement for families raising young children. This new definition includes facets of Jewish engagement that have been overlooked. It provides practitioners, researchers and policy makers with new concepts and metrics to support the engagement of families with young children.

2. The development of a comprehensive set of new measures of Jewish engagement for families with young children. These measures correspond to the new definition and provide practitioners, researchers and policy makers with useful metrics for Jewish engagement that are more attuned to the needs and perspectives of contemporary families.

3. The distinction between membership, institutional involvement/attachment and Jewish engagement. Concepts of membership and engagement have often been conflated in Jewish educational settings. Elucidating distinctions between these concepts enables practitioners, researchers, and policy makers to better articulate goals for engagement of Jewish families.

4. The insight that many Jewish early childhood programs are charged with increasing membership and institutional attachment, but not necessarily Jewish engagement. Early childhood programs are often evaluated on their capacity to increase family participation in the larger organization (e.g., encouraging families to become synagogue members or to attend early childhood activities). Jewish early childhood programs are rarely evaluated on their success in cultivating other facets of engagement among families such as developing Jewish friendships or Jewish home practice, even as these practices are more likely to endure beyond the family’s time connected to the early childhood center.

5. The use of advanced analytical techniques to estimate the effects of Jewish early childhood programs. Using data collected from parents with young children enrolled in both Jewish and other early childhood programs, the study developed a four-part typology of engagement, which sheds new light on how different types of families with children enrolled in Jewish early childhood programs may change over time.

6. Identifying types of Jewish families more likely to change over time as a result of enrolling in Jewish early childhood programs. The study found that some families were more likely, relative to others, to see change in their Jewish engagement levels that may be attributed to their participation in early childhood programs. This finding may enable the development of specially-tailored interventions to enhance engagement among different kinds of families.

7. How practice and policy can be adapted in a wide-range of Jewish early childhood settings.

The study’s recommendations include: mobilizing resources for increased Jewish early childhood educators’ salaries; encouraging more Jewish early childhood centers to adhere to established standards (e.g. QRIS) to ensure high quality programs and demonstrate quality to parents making choices about their children’s early childhood education; providing more programs for children with special needs; investing in professional development for early childhood educators with a focus on Jewish content, childhood development, and working with parents and families; creating full-day programs that also offer care on Jewish holidays.

Practical factors such as cost, location, and hours of operation, as well as perceived quality, influence parental choice of ECE. Most families that choose Jewish ECE increase their Jewish practice, such as celebrating Shabbat and holidays and participating in Jewish ECE events, often with friends whom they meet at the Jewish ECE program. The study found that involvement in Jewish activities and programs sponsored by Jewish institutions is not always sustained over time even as Jewish friendships endure.

“Families who are already somewhat engaged in the Jewish community – meeting a threshold of ‘connectedness ‘ are more likely to become even more connected and engaged,” says Dr. Arielle Levites, Director of CASJE. “New efforts may focus on better understanding and designing programs for families that come to Jewish ECE with fewer formal ties to the Jewish community.”

The first phase of the project included a comprehensive literature review of 53 studies, a content analysis of 1,221 survey items previously used to study Jewish populations, and interviews with 44 Jewish professionals in the field and 10 Jewish parents of young children. To examine the associations between Jewish ECE and Jewish engagement from the viewpoint of early childhood programs, researchers obtained both qualitative and quantitative data from both parents and ECE professionals in three target communities, Chicago, IL; Seattle, WA; and Greater Washington, DC. The final phase of the project used an online survey of 1,223 parents from these three communities and across the U.S. to describe parents’ ECE choices and how their choice for Jewish versus “other” ECE is linked with family Jewish engagement.