Conversations (1)

We’re very excited to be engaging a great cast this week in a discussion about Jewish early childhood education.

Some evaluation research in this sector points to the promise of quality Jewish ECE initiatives to promote engagement of low and marginally-affiliated families with the Jewish community (For example:  the 2002 study of preschools in Baltimore, Chicago and Denver, the 2006 Map of the Field of Jewish ECE in Denver and Boulder, the 2014 program evaluation of the Jewish Resource Specialist program in the Bay Area which was part of a larger initiative called ECEI, and the 2013  program evaluation of the Joyfully Jewish initiative in Chicago).

This is a good start, but we need more systematic and robust study to make claims about what works, for whom, and how —  and, more importantly, to bring improvements to practice and philanthropic investment.

So,  I would like to kick off the conversation with a framing question: From where you sit and based on your experience in the field,  in what ways, and to what extent, is Jewish ECE serving as a gateway into broader and deeper Jewish engagement and/or education, particularly among those who enter the system 'less engaged, connected or involved'? What would we need to know in order to determine how could Jewish ECE facilitate this kind of engagement role more effectively?

We have solid research to substantiate that families with young children are actively looking for friendships, support, information and connection to community at this stage in their lives.  And it pays for the Jewish community to be there for families - when they are creating patterns, setting routines and building relationships with families and institutions –many of which will last and influence the choices they will be making throughout their lives.


Yet the extent to which we are successful in “hooking” them depends a lot on our intent and execution while they are in our early childhood programs and the offerings we have for families when they transition out.


First, I can think of 5 ways – I’m sure there are others - in which ECE serves as a gateway to broader engagement:

1)    Through age appropriate and joy-filled Jewish learning that goes on in the classroom that prompts children to go home and open a conversation about G-d or mitzvot or to use the ritual object they made in the classroom. It is not at all surprising to me that one of the most frequently cited outcomes of ECE programs is that families are celebrating Shabbat or holidays in a new or enhanced way.  In my home, our observance of Shabbat increased from a monthly or “whenever it was convenient” approach to a weekly one as our then 4-year old came home one Friday and said “Mommy, Shabbat is actually every week” followed up with  “So….aren’t we going to do it tonight?”  It was clear that Shabbat had become meaningful and joyful to him….and he wanted to continue to share it with us.  What parent can say no to that?!

2)    The extent to which the ECE Director and teachers see it as part of their jobs to encourage social connections and build community among parents.  This can be a challenge, particularly in full day programs when parents are often rushing to drop-off to get to work and pick up after a long day, but perhaps even more important that these relationships are forged, so families feel supported and connected during these early years.  We know that the number of Jewish friends correlates with Jewish choices families make later on – but this requires community building to be as central to the school’s mission as what is happening in the classrooms.  (As an aside, the “sense of community” is often what we often hear as a distinguishing feature of Jewish preschools – we need to be great at this…and market it.  It we are looking for a competitive edge in the ever crowded early childhood market, this is one area we can absolutely win.)

3)    The extent to which Directors and other organizational leadership identify themselves and make themselves available as (Jewish) role models for parents and children.  Are Directors welcoming parents in the lobby each morning during drop off? Are they available for advice and consultation on parenting issues? Do rabbis or other Jewish leaders invite school families regularly for coffee, as Shabbat guests or attend preschool graduation ceremonies?  For some families, being in an ECE program is the first time they’ve had exposure and access to Jewish leadership – what are we doing to maximize that opportunity?

4)    The way that schools actively encourage and invite participation in the larger community – whether it be a synagogue, community center or broader Jewish community at large. I loved hearing that two synagogue-based EC centers in Chicago recently voted to extend synagogue membership to all EC families. To do this right, individual ECE centers must be able to see that any ongoing connection to the Jewish community is a “win” – and actively market the offerings of other Jewish organizations’ activities to their families.

5)    The way we help families connect to the next step when they leave our schools.  How well are day schools, congregational schools, Jewish camps, etc. marketed to preschool families? Who is taking responsibility for making sure these families stay in the pipeline? The community at large has a role to play here. Locally, participation in community wide programs such as PJ Library, JUF Right Start and others, families remain connected to the broader Jewish community which can help them learn about and transition to next steps.


In terms of what we’d need to know to facilitate this engagement better – we need to stay on top of both the demand and supply sides of the equation.  What are families looking for as they age out of our ECE programs, and in particular, how can Judaism and the Jewish community play a role in meeting these needs?  Secondly, what exists in our communities – or needs to be created -  that matches up with their needs and interests? And what barriers need to be addressed to make sure families can access these offerings? Time and time again, I think we have seen that the interest among families in connecting with the Jewish community is strong.   But a close look at our offerings – ensuring they are high quality, accessible, welcoming, relevant and integrated with the ways families are living their everyday lives – is key to ensuring that they want to stay connected.  The howto keep them connected becomes much easier when the offerings themselves are attractive, relevant, meaningful and accessible.