We’re Learning How to Succeed at Engaging Jewish Families

by Ed Frim

A wave of concern is sweeping our community. Whenever a new study is published about our community we react viscerally with worry about whether we are losing our families and children and with great emotion over the future of our community and Judaism.

We often do not focus on the positive progress we are making in engaging our families and children. Our community is evolving, sometimes in ways that make us uncomfortable, but there are very exciting developments. We seldom are presented with strong data about the effectiveness of our efforts.

Here in Pittsburgh, we have an exciting story to share including analysis of how we are achieving significant success.

Almost three years ago, we embarked on a journey. We had an ambitious goal – to engage all our families with young children in Jewish life and learning. We signed on to the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative (JECEI), a national effort to transform early childhood education programs into centers of excellence based on the Reggio Emilia philosophy, centers that would attract Jewish families and change their attitudes and behaviors.

The national JECEI project was housed at the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life with more than a dozen other national funders, and provided an invaluable framework fusing the constructivist Reggio Emilia approach with intensive Jewish engagement. We planned a local community based initiative predicated on the support and accumulated expertise of the national JECEI organization.

Shortly after we finalized recruitment of schools for our local JECEI program, including the Jewish Community Center (JCC) and two synagogues, the national JECEI office announced it would cease operations. With the support of two local foundations and our Federation, and in consultation with the national JECEI office, our Agency for Jewish Learning (AJL) created a local infrastructure for JECEI.

JECEI has been transformative in Pittsburgh, and we have data to describe this success. It has demonstrated results in the participating schools, and is garnering significant interest from other local Jewish early childhood centers. It has not only begun to transform Jewish early childhood education and engaging Jewish families, it has profoundly transformed the way in which we see and do our work at both the JCC and the AJL. Dr. Roberta Goodman, a national expert and former evaluator for the national JECEI program, noted in her annual evaluation of our project that Pittsburgh has been succeeding where others have struggled with the JECEI approach.

In Pittsburgh, our goal is transformation on a community level. The JECEI project administered by our Agency for Jewish Learning has worked with the JCC and two synagogue programs, with the JCC and one synagogue remaining in our core program. More institutions will join the program in the years to come. Key to the success of the program has been the involvement of prominent national experts alongside a local coordinator in a comprehensive support structure. We are working to engage and train local Jewish educators as guides, mentors and experts.

From the perspective of Brian Schreiber, President and CEO of the JCC, “the JECEI experiment was a catalyst for the agency to more critically and comprehensively examine what excellence means – not just in the early learning program but throughout all programs. JECEI challenged the JCC’s teaching methods, its philosophy of relating to children and parents, and redefining Jewish engagement metrics. A drive to build excellence and an explicit commitment to undergo a change process has brought new families to the JCC. Once inside, the JCC organically integrates the Jewish calendar and Jewish values into everyday life in a way that many were not looking for initially. The educators have begun to embrace the change process and that the journey is a continuous one.”

Our JCC is a stable, successful institution that is highly regarded in the Jewish and general community. This existing institutional strength is also an important factor in the success of our efforts. Within two years, the JCC has radically transformed physical space through the inspiration of JECEI. It has invested nearly $100,000 of its own resources in addition to the JECEI investment to its internal staffing structure to advance the model. Annual surveys of parents have shown significant shifts in attitudes and behaviors, with Jewish parents far more engaged now in their child’s Jewish education than previously.

At our Agency for Jewish Learning (AJL), JECEI has allowed the agency to develop significant new capacity to support change on both the institutional and community levels. The agency has transformed from a program provider to a source of expertise, consultation and communal change.

Dr. Roberta Goodman noted a number of elements that led to success in Pittsburgh.

  • AJL’s intimate knowledge and strong relationships in the local community.
  • JECEI’s data driven, independent approach to ensuring quality and accountability.
  • AJL’s perspective and vision of transforming both the school and community.
  • A community based approach that is responsive to the culture of each site.
  • Flexibility and capacity to develop innovative new components in the JECEI structure.

The focus on a community level has allowed us to build on what the national JECEI project developed. Many new program components were created in response to local needs, to bring parents and educators to learn together, to partner with local experts and institutions including Carnegie Mellon University’s nationally renowned Cyert Center for Early Education, to learn from visits to other Jewish and secular early childhood programs, to better coordinate the work of teams of national and local consultants, and more.

A final and key component of success in our community is the partnership with our funder. There has been a shared sense of vision and excitement, as well as a commitment to build a sustainable model, both for the JCC and synagogue sites and for the JECEI infrastructure at AJL. This includes consideration of how to develop the required levels of institutional investment and the related funding streams to support that investment.

To summarize, we have learned that success requires:

  • serious investment of resources,
  • a community based support structure and healthy partnerships on the local level,
  • a powerful educational approach, and
  • the expertise and flexibility to adapt a national model to the needs of the community and local institutions.

We our documenting our work so that other communities can learn how to adapt this model to create centers of excellence that engage families. We are excited to continue on this journey together and share what we learn about how to build a vibrant, thriving and engaged Jewish community beginning with families with young children.

Ed Frim is Executive Director of Pittsburgh’s Agency for Jewish Learning.