NEW YORK (JTA) – Sharon Goldstein felt a little lost when she started to look for an early childhood education program for her soon-to-be year-old twins, Benjamin and Jaden.
Though Goldstein had lived in Los Angeles for about 20 years, she moved to Tarzana, on the west side of the metropolitan area, when she was pregnant. She had heard of a few schools through friends but wasn’t sure how to evaluate the programs.
All Goldstein knew was that she wanted a Jewish school, preferably affiliated with the Conservative movement.
“You kind of don’t know where to begin,” she said. “You need someone to help you get some direction and help figure out what you’re looking for.”
Goldstein turned to a pilot program of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles that provides “concierges” to help match parents with appropriate formal and informal Jewish educational outlets.
The program, which is being called the first of its kind in the country, is one that Jewish education professionals are hoping will be replicated soon in more communities.
The L..A. education bureau has hired two Jewish part-time staffers to help parents choose from a range of programs, including full-time day schools, afterschool congregational programs, nursery schools and summer camps.
“The idea is that people have different interests in a variety of Jewish educational experiences,” Gil Graff, the executive director of the education bureau, told JTA. “Some are interested in informal activities. Some are interested in day schools and some are interested in early childhood education. The object is to encourage people to attach to the Jewish community, whatever their Jewish needs.”
The concierges are compiling a database of all of the programs in the Los Angeles area, and when they sit down with parents, they ask what the parents want and need.
Goldstein, for instance, met with concierge Stefanie Somers for an hour over coffee, and together the two compared several early education programs. They considered their length of day, staffing, food offerings and the congregations with which they are affiliated.
“Friends are far more subjective. They say, ‘We love the teachers, we love this, we love that,’” Goldstein said. “Stefanie gave me the facts.”
Essentially the program is a marketing tool aiming to reach Jews who are interested in joining the Jewish community but aren’t already connected to a synagogue or school, Graff said.
The concierges try to guide parents through Los Angeles’ 36 day schools and 53 part-time religious congregational schools, as well as the plethora of early childhood classes that have some 7,000 children enrolled in them, according to Graff.
Since the program started in July, the two concierges have helped approximately 140 clients, according to Miriam Prum Hess, the Bureau of Jewish Education’s director of day school operational services. She oversees the concierge program.
About a quarter of the clients are like Goldstein – those who have relocated to the Los Angeles area. Most of the rest are first-time mothers.
“Sixty-five to 70 percent of my clients come to me saying, ‘I have no idea what nursery school I should go to. There are so many choices. Can you please tell me?’ ” Somers said.
As the mother of young twins, Somers acquired knowledge about the local Jewish landscape through her own personal search and affiliations. But she and her fellow concierge, Stacey Kent, have spent much of their time becoming intimately familiar with the schools, camps and congregational schools of Los Angeles.
The key to the concierge program is advertising not at synagogues but in non-traditional places such as doctors’ offices and breast-pumping seminars. Hess says another avenue is the Internet, including non-Jewish Web sites such as Peachhead.com – a listserv she says was started by a Grateful Dead fan – and mamasource.com.
A two-year, $130,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles is funding the program.
Though the idea had been touted by groups such as the Jewish Educational Services of North America, no one had implemented the program until now. Detroit, Cleveland and Miami are among the Jewish communities looking into developing similar programs.
The concierge approach is important now as the world becomes more consumer oriented and Jewish education becomes more “learner driven,” said Jonathan Woocher, the chief ideas officer for JESNA and the director of the Lippman Kanfer Institute, a think tank on Jewish education.
Woocher says the approach allows parents to pick the education that is right for them.
“What is important about it is that it represents an effort to go out to the people who are on the ground and find out what we can do to help them rather than sitting back and saying, ‘This is what we have to offer, take it or leave it,’ ” he said. “Hopefully that is going to become a model.”