The Many Faces of Jewish Early Childhood Education

By Carolyn Linder

As I continue to process the horrific attack born out of hate that recently befell my community, I cannot help but to be reminded that our one true hope for a more tolerant, empathetic, peaceful and loving future rests on the shoulders and in the hearts of our very youngest citizens.

While we tend to measure success of any kind in definitive numerical terms, I suggest that some of our most profound successes in Jewish early childhood education (ECE) are much more subtle and have lasting ripple effects that perhaps can never be fully measured. These silent successes are just as much about the young children as they are about the families. These unspoken outcomes of Jewish ECE are by no means any less significant or profound than numerical measures, particularly for those of us who are of the mindset that children are indeed our greatest hope for a better and brighter future.

Community begins in the classroom, and when we welcome non-Jewish families into our Jewish ECE programs we are nurturing ambassadors of our faith. What an extraordinarily powerful, significant and virtually silent outcome of Jewish ECE this represents! These families are drawn to our programs because of Judaism’s rich culture and values. We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge this unique dichotomy that is prevalent in so many of our programs throughout the country.

There are myriad reasons why there will always be Jewish families who opt to send their children to non-Jewish programs. Likewise, there will always be families who do not identify as being Jewish seeking to send their children to Jewish ECE programs. This means that in many instances our Jewish ECE programs are quite culturally and ethnically diverse. For many Jewish families this particular dynamic is an important and desired aspect of their decision-making. Many Jewish families actively seek to enroll their young children in a Jewish ECE program with a diverse population. They want their young children to be immersed in their heritage together with children from other backgrounds.

Is it really a shanda (a shame) then that despite our very best efforts and weighty investments, so many of our programs are simply unable to move the needle significantly in increasing the numbers of Jewish families enrolling in ECE programs? Perhaps it is simply a matter of perspective. Ironically, one direct outcome of having diverse families choosing a Jewish ECE program is that many of our programs are consequently financially healthy and able to remain open, ensuring that Jewish families actually have access to a Jewish ECE program for their children.

To be sure, we must continue to invest in Jewish ECE from all angles. Our commitment to excellence in Jewish ECE must remain on going so that even more Jewish families will want to begin their Jewish journey together, within the folds of a Jewish ECE program. We must seek and implement new strategies to attract these families to our programs and to lower any existing barriers in order to provide them with Jewish ECE programs of excellence and with truly meaningful opportunities to engage in Jewish living and learning. At this stage of their lives, more so than at any other time, parents of young children are open to considering questions of identity and connection for themselves and for their children.

We know that a young child’s experiences during his/her early years can influence his/her ideas for a lifetime. Whether you identify with the analogy of America as a melting pot, salad bowl, chocolate fondue or something entirely different, we Americans pride ourselves on celebrating the diversity of our heterogeneous society. Many Jewish families are seeking opportunities to cultivate their own Jewish identity and to deepen their Jewish learning while also providing their young children with opportunities for cultural awareness and diversity. Concurrently, families from other faith traditions and backgrounds are also choosing to be immersed in our values-based ECE environments and are participating in our inclusive and immersive rituals and celebrations. We must continue to build connections through the experience of caring, not only among members of our own community but also with persons outside of our community. Together, these many faces of Jewish ECE are leading the way towards a more accepting, empathetic, tolerant and loving society.

Carolyn Linder has been in the field of Jewish early childhood education for over 30 years. As the Director of Early Childhood Education at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, she brings her passion and experience by providing leadership to the Jewish early childhood learning community and helps to develop the highest-quality programs for its youngest learners and their families.