Beyond Torah for Tots Growing Number of Non-jews Teach the Aleph-bet at Preschool

It’s 10 a.m. Friday morning at Temple Beth Sholom’s preschool, and teacher Diane Acquistapace is helping a dozen toddlers get ready for Shabbat. “You put your challah in, you put your challah out, you put your challah in, and you shake it all about,” they sing, arms high above their heads as they turn slowly, doing their own rendition of the hokey-pokey.

Turning to an Asian boy to her left, Acquistapace asks, “Simon, what do you like best about Shabbat?”

“Challah!” Simon shouts.

“Madison, what do you like best?”

“The candles!”

Then they all crowd around a pint-sized table to light candles, eat fresh-baked, chocolate-chip challah and sing Shabbat songs, in English and Hebrew.

Acquistapace, who is not Jewish, knows all the songs. She should, after eight years teaching in this Conservative congregation’s preschool.

“I’m Catholic, but I’ve learned so many things about the Jewish religion,” she says. “It’s so exciting. I never knew what Shabbat was. I love Chanukah, lighting the candles.”

Of the eight teachers at this San Francisco Bay area preschool, seven are non-Jews. So are many of the children they teach.

That’s not unusual in the world of Jewish preschool.

According to 2004 figures from the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, 15 percent of the more than 122,500 children in Jewish preschools in this country are not Jewish: about 10 percent in Reconstructionist and Conservative preschools, 20 percent in Reform schools, and 44 percent in preschools run by Jewish Community Centers and Ys. Virtually all children in Orthodox preschools are Jewish.

This isn’t referring to children of intermarried parents, but to the children of two non-Jewish parents.

And many of their teachers aren’t Jewish either: 30 percent in the JCC preschools, 10 percent to 25 percent in Reform schools, and 12 percent to 20 percent in Conservative schools, according to the CAJE figures. The percentage is highest in the western United States, where almost 40 percent of preschool teachers are not Jewish.

That sets up an interesting scenario: Plenty of classrooms where non-Jewish teachers are introducing non-Jewish children to Jewish history, values and customs.

Does it matter? The question is important at a time when Jewish preschools are gradually being recognized as a critical factor in developing a strong Jewish identity both in the toddlers and their families.

The answer? Yes and no.

On one hand, Jewish early childhood experts acknowledge that they’d rather have Jewish teachers to act as living role models for the children. But finding Jewish teachers is becoming increasingly difficult.

Lyndall Miller, coordinator of the Jewish early childhood education certification program at Gratz College in Melrose Park, Pa., says that few younger Jews are going into the field because of low salaries and benefits.

“Synagogues will find themselves in trouble keeping their early childhood programs,” she says. “We’re all in our 40s and 50s. Who will be coming in? It’ll be almost all non-Jewish teachers. And the community will miss this amazing opportunity to acculturate children to Jewish life at a time when children are learning how to do Jewish, which translates into being Jewish.”

On the other hand, every preschool director interviewed insists that her non-Jewish teachers are dedicated, hardworking and often know more about Judaism and the holidays than their Jewish colleagues.

Certainly, they say, any qualified teacher can learn the level of Jewish and Hebrew knowledge required to teach such young children.

“I have one non-Jewish teacher,” says Laurel Abrams, director of the Jennifer Rosen Meade Preschool, a Reform congregational school in Bellevue, Wash. “She’s been here 13 years and she knows as much as the Jewish teachers.”

But Abrams, like most directors, teams her non-Jewish teacher with her Jewish ones, to make sure there’s always a Jewish teacher in the classroom.

Rabbi Jan Katzew, director of lifelong Jewish learning for the Union for Reform Judaism, points out that non-Jewish women have a long history of educating Jewish children, dating back to biblical times.

Shiphra and Puah, the two midwives who defied Pharaoh and refused to drown Jewish male infants, “might not be Jewish,” he says. “And Pharaoh’s daughter, who was clearly not Jewish, was pivotal in rearing Moses.”

“Without explicit support from non-Jews, we would have had no Moses, no Torah and no Judaism, at least as we now know it,” he says.

Jewish preschools have changed radically over the past 20 years. According to the Jewish educational nonprofit JESNA, most Jewish preschools in the early 1980s were synagogue nursery schools, half-day programs that sought to socialize the children and introduce them to a few basic Jewish concepts. Teacher retention was high, and most were certified in early childhood education and had bachelor’s or master’s degrees.

Today, preschools are run by a variety of agencies, as well as by synagogues. The booming student population of children up to 6 years old has outstripped the supply of qualified teachers, who are less educated and less likely to stay in the field than their predecessors.

“Unfortunately,” a recent JESNA report states, “it has become increasingly difficult to find sufficient numbers of Jewish teachers to teach in those programs.”

It’s the “unfortunately” that has some educators squirming.

“That’s a loaded question,” says Ina Regosin, founding director of the Early Childhood Institute and dean of students at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass., which has offered a teaching certificate in early Jewish childhood education for 20 years.

“You can’t have a Jewish school of excellence without excellently trained early childhood Jewish educators, people who speak Hebrew, who model Jewish values, who are living microcosms of what that means. If a non-Jew can do it, fine, but it’s not what I would choose.”

Dena Hoenig Valdez, director of the preschool at Congregation Agudas Achim, a Conservative congregation in San Antonio, Texas, disagrees.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have excellent teachers,” Hoenig says of her school, where four of the 12 teachers are not Jewish. “The parents don’t even know which teachers are Jewish and which are not.”

Hoenig’s preschool was created in 1997 by five families, four of them non-Jewish, as a “mother’s day out” program, she explains. As the school grew to 60 children, so did its percentage of Jewish families, to 85 percent.

“Especially in San Antonio, there’s a shortage of Jewish early childhood educators,” she says. “It’s a problem all the synagogues face.”

One of her teachers, Marcie Kane, is a practicing Catholic who has been teaching at Jewish preschools for nine years. She took the job because, she says, “it was just a really good school,” and she stayed because she loves it.

“I had to learn Hebrew, the aleph bet, the Jewish songs, all the holidays,” she says. “Sometimes I’d have to learn something and then teach it the next day. But because I’m not Jewish, I’m really trying to learn more. Some of the Jewish teachers have forgotten things that I’m learning. I say, you don’t know that? Here, let me teach you!”

Vivi Deren, director of the Chabad-run Gan Yeladim preschool in Stamford, Conn., says each of her classrooms has an early childhood expert, usually non-Jewish, teamed with a Jewish teacher, who is responsible for the Jewish learning. Her Jewish teachers are Torah-observant, young Lubavitch women.

It’s about authenticity, she says. “When it comes to talking about what matzah means, it’s only the Judaic teacher” who should explain that to the children, she says. “And I only hire Judaic teachers who live it. It’s not a question of just being Jewish.”

Jewish education expert Lois Shenker, author of “Welcome to the Family,” told a recent convention of Reform preschool educators that it’s crucial for Jewish teachers to “live their Judaism” all the time, not just in the classroom.

That doesn’t mean they all have to be Jewish, she says.

When she directed the JCC preschool in Portland, Ore., none of her teachers were Jewish. She says she’d rather have a skilled non-Jewish teacher than an unskilled Jewish one.

“Jewish values and observance are not, by and large, in conflict with Christianity. So if teachers can buy into it, and they’re skilled teachers, that’s fine,” she says.

But, in her view, it’s crucial that the directors of Jewish preschools be Jewish, particularly when there are large numbers of non-Jewish teachers.

Eloise Hull, director of the preschool at The Temple, Congregation Ohabai Shalom in Nashville, Tenn., might disagree.

One of the few non-Jewish preschool directors in the country, Hull is a practicing Christian who grew up in a fundamentalist church in Lancaster, Pa., and went to Bible college for her early childhood education degree.

Now she’s on the national board of the Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism, the professional body for Reform Jewish preschool teachers and directors, and is deeply committed to the project of educating Jewish preschoolers.

Hull doesn’t see any conflict between her personal beliefs and heading a Jewish preschool, although she admits it would be “more difficult” beyond the preschool level, once teachers get into the realm of theology.

“We were always taught Jews are God’s people, and what I do at the temple isn’t that different than being an educator in a Christian school — the values, the stories, the heritage, it’s all something I’d want children to know, Jewish or not. I feel very comfortable advocating for these things.”

About half the 106 children and three-quarters of the teachers in her school are not Jewish. She had to chastise some of those teachers, she admits, when she found out they were bringing Christian Bibles to class and even taking their pupils to Sunday school.

“When I hire teachers, I say this is a Jewish school, this is what we talk about and this is what we don’t talk about, so are you comfortable with that?” she says. “And I tell my parents, we’re celebrating Jewish heritage here.”

Why would Christians send their children to Jewish school?

There are no barriers preventing non-Jewish parents from sending their children to non-Orthodox, and even some Orthodox, preschools. Few Conservative preschools, and virtually no Reform or JCC preschools, require families to affiliate.

That open-door policy, combined with the reputation of Jewish preschools for high-quality early childhood education, has attracted many non-Jewish families.

Nancy Bossov, director of early childhood education for the Union for Reform Judaism, sees it as a positive trend.

“I’m delighted we have the opportunity to raise an entire generation of non-Jews that know about Judaism and are comfortable with it,” she says.

When Edna Vaknin was hired as the preschool director at Beth Sholom, the San Francisco Bay area school, eight years ago, the school was on the verge of collapse with just seven children in the school, all of them Jewish.

In an effort to bolster enrollment, she decided to open the doors to non-Jewish children, advertising as a “strictly Jewish” school that was available to anyone.

“I said, ‘We don’t celebrate Halloween or Christmas and we keep kosher, but we want you to be part of us, to show you what we’re all about.’ “

Today the school has 60 children of mixed backgrounds. Last year, a couple who were both Christian ministers sent their child, and used to show up every Friday for the school’s Shabbat program.

Another parent, Carol Orth, is a practicing Christian who enrolled her 2-year-old daughter, Carmen, because she heard good things about the school from friends.

“It’s a loving environment,” she says, as she balances her daughter on her lap during pre-Shabbat festivities. “I’m raising my child Christian, but I want her to grow up in a God-loving environment. She can learn the Old Testament here.”

In Encinitas, Calif., just north of San Diego, Lynn Parker says she chose the preschool at Temple Solel, a Reform congregation, for her son in part because it was more multicultural than the local Christian schools.

As a Christian married to a Hindu, she wanted her son in that kind of mixed atmosphere.

When their son brought home apples at Rosh Hashanah, dipped them in honey and taught his sister the songs he’d learned in preschool, Parker says she was pleased. She even bought him a menorah when he asked for one, and set it up alongside the family’s Christmas tree.

“He sings the songs, talks about the Torah and all the things he’s learned, and we like it,” she says.

“As much exposure to different cultures he can get, the better for him — and for us. We’re learning, too.”

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