Welcoming More Families into Jewish Life through Early Childhood Education Programs

New Research to Inform How ECE Can Serve as Gateway
for Long-Term Jewish Engagement

CASJE, the Consortium for Applied Research in Jewish Education, will embark on a new research program to further explore how Jewish early childhood education can serve as a gateway for greater and long-term involvement in Jewish life. The three-year research program will focus especially on better understanding opportunities around interfaith families and families that are not currently involved in a synagogue or other Jewish institution.

“As a community, we have anecdotal evidence and minor studies that show how ECE is this gateway into ongoing Jewish engagement,” says Lisa Farber Miller of Rose Community Foundation in Denver, who was involved in CASJE’s process to develop this research program. “We know that these are formative years of a child’s development of cognition, personality, and identity – including religious identity – and that this is an opportunity to engage parents and siblings in Jewish life. But we lack a deep understanding nationally about specific practices and strategies to fully leverage the ECE experience in this way.”

With the general focus of the research determined, CASJE now will identify a group of up to 10 researchers to participate in a virtual “research question generation” session. Following this session, researchers will be invited to submit proposals for one of two possible “awards” – a larger award, likely $400,000, to conduct a large scale, longer duration study (maximum of three years), and up to four smaller awards of $50,000 each to conduct smaller, shorter term studies designed to get learnings into the field within 6-8 months. CASJE anticipates receiving proposals from March-June, with a goal of making awards at its June Board meeting.

“Improved and enriched ECE may be an important strategy for reinforcing Jewish life in our diverse communities,” says Dr. Michael Feuer, co-chair of the CASJE board and dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University. “There are many questions to answer: What ECE practices are most effective? How can communities maintain family involvement in Jewish life as their children grow? And how can communities engage with more families through ECE programs?”

This new research program will build on the limited Jewish ECE studies that already exist. These findings show that when children enjoy Jewish learning and rituals at school, they bring them home, introducing them to the entire family. Studies also show that parents in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who choose Jewish preschools in part do so because they seek a network of other Jewish parents with whom they can build community. And parents who form Jewish peer groups through their child’s ECE center are more likely to be actively engaged in Jewish life in the future.

“We want to equip communities with the knowledge and skills to welcome in families of all Jewish backgrounds as effectively as possible,” says Lesley Matsa, a program officer for The Crown Family, which is funding the research program.

Founded in 2011, CASJE is a unique and growing community of researchers, practitioners, and philanthropic leaders who work together to improve the quality of knowledge that can guide the work of, and investment in, Jewish education.