Sparking the Change

By Abigail Goldberg Spiegel, Sheryl Seef, David Stanton, and Susie Wexler

We would like to share a story about a group of four new friends. Friends who have never watched a ball game together, never sat down for a bite to eat at a restaurant and, in fact, never even met in person. Yet through hours together on Zoom, facing a professional challenge we have forged a friendship that is much tighter and deeper than many of the casual relationships most people maintain for years. What has brought us together is our shared passion, our unique viewpoints, and the opportunity to elevate the professionalism of the field of Jewish Early Childhood Education as co-chairs of the Sparking the Change Task Force, a URJ-JCC Association of North America partnership.

This project sought to tackle the critical issues in Jewish early childhood education, challenges we each had experienced throughout our careers. These include addressing issues of recruitment and retention in the field, examining onboarding and credentialing, and increasing professionalism and teacher compensation. We knew from the start at the Sparking Jewish Engagement Summit at the URJ Biennial in December 2019 that we had taken on a large, complex topic. Then Coronavirus began sweeping through the country, impacting foundational learning and life as we knew it.  

As the extent of the coronavirus became more and more evident, the issues facing the task force were dramatically exacerbated. The Task Force was convened for a conversation with Mark Horowitz, Vice President, Program and Talent, and Cathy Rolland, Senior Director of Emerging Networks / Families with Young Children at the URJ. With everything we had on our plates – pivoting to virtual learning, engaging families, working from home while managing full households – a decision had to be made. Was this the time to continue this sacred work?  

We were faced with the ultimate interview question, “Can you share a time when you had to choose between doing the ‘easy thing’ and the ‘right thing’?” It often pauses interviewees as they struggle to think of a good example. We knew the easy thing would have been to pause; this was not the time to take on a major challenge. And yet, we saw a unique opportunity to do the right thing; for this moment in time brought the confluence where the field of early childhood education, the country, and the Jewish community needed this project more than ever. Early childhood was being widely recognized as essential work, with practitioners on the front line, leading the reopening of the country. This was precisely the moment for the work to accelerate.  

The unique piece of our story, however, is not the work we are doing; and the potential for positive change in the world of early childhood, Jewish family engagement and beyond. Rather, it is what this exceptional work gave to us: a sense of purpose; a sense of passion and a sense of motivation.  These are not unfamiliar feelings. In pre-coronavirus times, those were the professional moments that pushed boundaries and innovated in our schools and communities. Seeing a child discover the concept of centrifugal force, hearing a family talk about establishing rituals for celebrating Shabbat at home, or observing a staff member get down on the child’s level and help them navigate a difficult emotion moment; that feeling of purpose and passion was a part of going to work every day.

For leaders in early childhood education the Coronavirus replaced moments of discovery and connection with Zoom meetings, hours spent navigating carpool lines to get children in and out of buildings, and virtual Shabbats. The good kind of tired felt at the end of the day on the job, the one where we get home and sink into the couch with a smile at the impact we made, slowly eroded into a feeling of exhaustion under the weight of just continuing to exist. That is where the importance of this work came in. This kept our flame lit and our souls nourished. It cultivated the space for passion and purpose and motivation to shine.  

This isn’t a story about how doing the “right thing” allowed us to try and make the world a better place. Our work with the task force and our weekly meetings – as well as the occasional evening meeting accompanied by a glass of wine (or something stronger) – healed us. It uplifted us and kept us moving forward, inspiring us and connecting us to the better world we all want to build. The aspirational work sustained our relationships with one another and vice-versa; it kept a smile on our face and a warmth in our heart. It sustained us through the constant barrage of challenging decisions. Working to make things better, we created connections amongst ourselves.  

While we have received a number of thank yous for the time, energy and passion we have invested in this process, it is truly the four of us who are grateful. Embracing the value of tikkun olam has given us a larger venue to work toward making a better world. And … it has made us better people during a most difficult time. We have re-ignited that sense of feeling fulfilled. Once again we experience the contentment of exhaustion from meaningful work. It has created a feeling of anticipation and excitement for the next meeting, the next steps of work and the change that we know we will create. It has nurtured the strength not just to do the “right thing” in our passion project, but in our day jobs as well.  

Experiencing the feeling of excitement, joy and passion, creates a desire for more.  In these times where the journey seems so long and the minutes and hours seem like days and weeks, it was a helpful reminder that our joint contributions to make the world a better place elevated us as individuals. We set out to improve Jewish early childhood education, and ended up improving our spirits.

In these troubled times, challenge yourself to improve the world. You never know, you might get a pretty good group of friends out of doing just that. We did.

Abigail Goldberg Spiegel is Executive Director Leo Baeck Temple, Los Angeles.
Sheryl Seef is Assistant Director and Pedagogista, Moriah ECC, Deerfield, IL.
David Stanton is Assistant Director, Goldberg ECC, Aaron Family JCC, Dallas.
Susie Wexler is Director of Early Childhood, Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim, Deerfield IL.
Task Force Co-Chairs, Sparking the Change Task Force