With 17-day intensive program in Israel, Bay Area’s EarlyJ looks to train teachers to instill Jewish pride in preschoolers

New initiative meant to help early childhood educators — who earn the title 'Jewish & Israel Cultural Ambassador' — learn how to instill Jewish identity and pride in their classes

Movement, music and multiculturalism; preschool pedagogy and practicums; calendar, community and connection. These were the topics on the agenda for the 10 San Francisco Bay Area Jewish early childhood educators who traveled to Israel earlier this month to meet Israeli contemporaries and learn new methods and tools that they can implement back home. 

The program, which ended last Tuesday, was a 17-day intensive program launched by the Bay Area initiative EarlyJ, in collaboration with Oranim College’s International School in the lower Galilee, northeast of Haifa. The curriculum was designed to strengthen Jewish identity, foster a meaningful connection to Israel and establish enduring partnerships among the Israelis and Americans. Participants receive a new title — “Jewish & Israel Cultural Ambassador” — as well as five academic credits and a $5,000 bonus to boost the educators’ pay.

“Supporting early childhood education is crucial, and this seminar stands as a testament to our commitment to investing in Jewish early childhood education,” said Sharona Israeli-Roth, EarlyJ’s founding president and executive director. 

An overall goal was to equip the educators with the knowledge to navigate conversations about Israel and Jewish identity with parents and other adults in the community in a time when these conversations are fraught, Israeli-Roth said, and to enable them to “bring the pride of being Jewish into the preschools and into their communities.” 

“We are who will strengthen the next generation that we are raising right now,” Israeli-Roth said. “We are going to face more antisemitism, unfortunately, in our society.”

After Oct. 7, it’s more important than ever to not just give educators tools but for them to incorporated those tools and lessons back into their work, she said, “so the community knows how to bring people together [and] celebrate who we are, as the Jewish people, our identity, give the parents and the kids the ability to be proud of it and talk about it.” Israeli-Roth added: “Everything starts with [early childhood education].”

EarlyJ is a joint philanthropic venture from the Rodan Family Foundation and the Koum Family Foundation aimed at transforming the reach and quality of Jewish Early Childhood Education across the Bay Area and beyond. The foundations, along with the Weingarten Foundation, seeded the initiative with a combined $12 million over five years, in addition to the $2 million raised for early East Bay pilot projects, and EarlyJ’s goal is to reach 25% of Bay Area Jewish families with preschool-age children by 2027.

“When we are talking to educators across the U.S., we’re hearing the same things and it’s not just in the Bay Area,” Israeli-Roth said. “A lot of our preschools have incredible educators, but not all of them [have the experience to] teach Judaism and Israel, and they’re finding themselves really struggling many times to educate our Jewish kids.” The future hope, she said, is to expand this year’s pilot to “send as many educators [as possible, from] across the U.S. to learn in Israel and engage.”

The cohort of educators have worked in the Jewish community for five or more years in early childhood education and are now lead teachers or program directors. 

The program for the 10 educators cost roughly $200,000. The costs increased after the organization was forced to purchase more expensive airline tickets from El Al, as other airlines, notably United, have canceled flights to Israel after Oct. 7.

Zehava Dahan, who was an adviser for the trip, said the pilot was limited to 10 participants for budgetary reasons, but there was far more interest than available spaces. 

EarlyJ is investing in preschool educators, Dahan added, because “if parents get a positive, loving experience, [if] the children feel safe and secure and are getting the Jewish heritage, the love of Israel [from their preschool years], they might continue to other Jewish education settings,” Dahan said.

Participant Impact

EarlyJ worked with Oranim for nearly a year to craft the seminar to meet the precise needs of the early childhood educators on a high level — to connect them to Jewish life and Israeli preschools, while introducing them to tools they could use. The cohort met locally before the trip and will after, creating projects and hosting events to engage with the community and share what they’ve learned.

Oranim was established as an academic institution for the Kibbutz Movement in 1951 with the goal of training educators for nursery school through elementary schools, as well as to work with youth and new immigrants, said Sigal Achituv, a senior lecturer and director of the early childhood education graduate program at Oranim. The central humanistic education philosophy involves preserving the potential of each child and the importance of fostering activities and initiatives early. 

“Kindergarten in the U.S. is only around ages 5 to 6, but in Israel it’s from birth to 6. We perceive the kindergarten system as life. It’s not preparing for life. It’s life itself,” Achituv said. 

For Samantha (Sam) Richardson, of Gan Torah Preschool in Mountain View, the trip prompted “questions and curiosities,” as well as renewed her love for teaching, Jewish life and Israel.

“It’s a safe space to talk and ask questions I normally wouldn’t and honestly allows me to think and take in different perspectives and understandings,” Richardson said. 

Israeli-born Sharon Konigstein, a preschool teacher at Sinai Nursery School in San Jose, said the program helped her learn to “integrate Jewish teachings without the religious context.” 

“It has broadened my perspective on effectively transmitting Jewish culture and values, emphasizing the importance of nurturing a vibrant Jewish community that resonates with people of diverse beliefs,” Konigstein said.

Gittel Goodman, of Gan Outdoor Preschool in Marin County’s San Rafael, said that “the master’s level classes changed the conversation from ‘How do we, Jewish early childhood educators, fit Judaism into our pedagogy?’ to a lens where Judaism is fluidly and naturally a deep part of the pedagogy.”

Leslie Weinstein of Peninsula Temple Sholom Preschool in Burlingame said that she was “hoping to broaden the preschool’s community engagement with the seniors with a multigenerational initiative.” 

The Staff Team

Jackie Levi-Atias, director of Oranim’s International School, told eJP that “especially after the seventh of October… this is the most important thing: to bring together the Jews in Israel and Jews around the world and to connect them, to preserve the Jewish connection,” she said.

Rachel Ravid, director of Oranim’s Galilee Dreamers Project and a lecturer and associate director of the Shared Society Unit, told eJP that — having lived in the U.S. as a teacher — she developed a passion for the pluralistic aspects of American Judaism and has participated in dialogue groups with Jewish and Arab teens.

“At Oranim, we’ve got mixed cultures, classes. And when we teach about pluralism, we teach about the spirit of God as the empathy that we have towards the other as a way of living,” she said. “Through dialogue, my Jewish identity is being strengthened all the time.” 

Sigal Achituv, a senior lecturer and director of the early childhood education graduate program at Oranim, also spent a year in the Bay Area as a teenager and said that working with the EarlyJ educators is “closing the circle with the community.”

Following Oct. 7, early childhood educators have to be aware of the well-being of their students, Ravid said, “to nurture their development in times of crisis,” and “how to create and maintain a sense of hope.” This is true both in Israel and abroad, where Jews are experiencing antisemitism and issues around security and safety, she said. “We understand that there’s so much responsibility now on her shoulders.”

Since Oct. 7, Levi-Atias understands the “importance of the connection between Israel and the Jewish community around the world.” 

“It’s crucial for us to be in connection and educate our children from age zero. We can’t live without Jews [living] outside of Israel. We have to start with the educators and the grown-ups, working together and being responsible for each other.”