Prioritizing Jewish Early Childhood Education

photo courtesy Boulder Jewish Community Center
photo courtesy Boulder Jewish Community Center

By Lisa Farber Miller, Cathy Rolland, and Mark Horowitz

[This piece is first of a series examining Jewish early childhood education and a new initiative, BUILDing Jewish ECE.]

Jewish early childhood education centers are the gateway for long-term family involvement in Jewish life: Parents have a child, enroll in a center, connect with new friends, and enjoy meaningful and enriching Jewish communal experiences designed for the entire family.

This, of course, is the ideal experience. But, for too many communities and families, this is not the case. Despite services that Jewish community centers (JCCs) and synagogues offer, many families remain unreached, unengaged, or as one-stop-shoppers who “exit” Jewish communal life when children “graduate” from an early childhood education (ECE) center. And when we fail to attract families to Jewish ECE centers – or when we attract them but fail to integrate them into the broader JCC or synagogue – our community often loses them and they don’t return.

We know this has to change and we must prioritize early family engagement and ECE. If the Jewish community viewed this demographic as it views other demographics deemed so critical to the Jewish future, then parents, children, synagogues, JCCs and entire Jewish communities would reap profound benefits.

For children, preschool years are a critical time in the development of cognition, personality and identity – including religious identity. On top of this, when children enjoy Jewish learning and rituals at school, they bring them home and the family has these Jewish experiences together.

Preschools also represent parents’ first Jewish educational choice, one that can propel them on a lifelong Jewish journey. While educational quality of ECE centers must be high – and is a key factor in selecting an ECE center – Jewish Millennials and Gen Xers primarily choose these schools because they seek a network of other Jewish parents with whom they can build community. The Jewish peer groups preschools create are predictive of future, deeper Jewish engagement for both parents and children.

Yet, little has been done to help JCC and synagogue ECE centers facilitate relationships among parents and promote Jewish family engagement that extends to the entire institution, beyond merely their involvement in the ECE center. So, after years of research and limited-in-scope initiatives, our organizations are putting early family engagement and ECE on the national, Jewish communal map.

First, let’s break down institutional silos. When families enroll in ECE centers, our JCCs and synagogues must embrace those families and show that they are valued members of the broader institution and Jewish community. This means that JCC and synagogues need programs, campaigns, and marketing materials designed to attract the attention of their ECE families, to communicate all that synagogues or JCCs offer, and to build inclusive relationships with these families.

Second, ECE centers should be equipped with the best marketing strategies and tools to reach all kinds of families, to respond effectively to inquiries, and to convert those inquiries to enrollments. Parent “ambassadors” should also be engaged to help attract other parents. Synagogues and JCCs with ECE centers benefit when these centers operate as effectively and efficiently as possible. Revenue increases, especially when families engage in the larger institution and become members.

Third, communities must be supported in this change. The same types of systems and structures that comprise other well-supported, national initiatives – training opportunities; a network to share ideas and challenges; dissemination of best practices – are sorely needed here too.

It’s in this vein, for the first time ever, that the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and JCC Association worked closely together to help create a specific initiative – BUILDing Jewish ECE. Led by Denver-based Rose Community Foundation, with support from the Jay & Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Colorado, the initiative is designed specifically to help synagogue and JCC ECE centers increase enrollment, market to and better engage Jewish families, and build stronger connections to the Jewish community.

For more than a decade, Rose Community Foundation and other Colorado-based Jewish education organizations have researched best practices in ECE, run professional development initiatives, and offered scholarships for families. Now, all nine Denver/Boulder synagogues and JCCs with ECE centers have the opportunity to receive expert coaching and training based on key lessons learned from these efforts and others. The current first cohort – two local Reform Temples and two JCC’s – receive coaching and training from the URJ and JCC Association, respectively. This summer, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism will join the initiative and offer coaching and training to Conservative congregations in BUILDing Jewish ECE Cohort II. In addition, a “Toolbox of Resources” will help the ECE centers expedite long-term growth. This includes proven marketing strategies and tactics from the secular world; software and database support to improve inquiry tracking and enrollment; materials and action plans; website, social media and SEO audits; along with a “mystery shopper program” to test a center’s effectiveness when a parent inquires about or visits the school.

Our hope is that the ECE centers in BUILDing Jewish ECE will be learning labs for the Jewish world. They will offer a model for building and maintaining institutions with high caliber marketing and customer retention systems that engage parents, create strong connections among families, and value deep and lasting relationships.

Jewish tradition teaches that “with each child the world begins anew.” If we truly believe that Jewish life and learning offer something special, even inspiring, then we have an obligation to market it and to bring in families. Each child and each family is an opportunity. Together, let’s embrace them.

Lisa Farber Miller is a senior program officer of Denver-based Rose Community Foundation. Cathy Rolland runs the early childhood education and family engagement initiatives for the Union for Reform Judaism. Cantor Mark Horowitz is vice president of early childhood education and family engagement at the JCC Association. Learn more about BUILDing Jewish ECE.