Research Indicates Early Engagement Crucial For Unaffiliated


This article accompanies “Jewish Child Care Model Poised for Growth.”

Advocates for Jewish early childhood education and full-time care argue that the first years of a child’s life offer a critical opportunity to engage young children and their parents.

A 2010 study that Brandeis University professor Mark Rosen conducted for UJA-Federation of New York’s Beginning Jewish Families Task Force, focused on five regions in the New York area with growing numbers of unaffiliated Jewish families with small children. That study, now cited by many in the field, found that most Jewish institutions attract only the most motivated families, even as countless other parents express an openness to Jewish experiences.

The study noted that when a young family becomes involved with secular institutions instead of Jewish institutions, parents are “less likely to establish friendships with other parents who are involved in Jewish life, and will be less likely to encounter Jewish role models.”

Since the study’s release, UJA-Federation has funded various outreach efforts for young unaffiliated families in Lower Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn and also helped launch Kveller, a website for parents of Jewish children.

The study has also shaped the thinking of others in Jewish early childhood education, like Cathy Rolland of the Union for Reform Judaism.

“Many people in the field are out of touch with today’s families,” she said, adding that they expect the current generation of parents to seek out Jewish life on their own.

Today’s parents “will go to a Jewish early childhood program only if it’s excellent,” Rolland said.

The URJ recently launched a lay-professional support group for Reform temples seeking to strengthen their outreach to young families and to improve their early childhood programs.

At the same time, the Jewish Education Project expanded on the Rosen study last fall, conducting focus groups with unaffiliated new Jewish mothers in Brownstone Brooklyn, to learn more about what they want and don’t want.

The focus groups pointed to some contradictory findings: many Jewish mothers said they valued ethnic and racial diversity in their friendships, yet often found themselves gravitating socially to other Jewish women.

The research also found that expatriate Israeli mothers and American Jewish mothers want different types of programming.

While American mothers often see Hebrew as a barrier, the Israelis were, not surprisingly, eager to expose their children to Hebrew. “Both are seeking cultural Jewish experiences, but it looks different,” said Shellie Dickstein, the JEP’s director of early childhood and family engagement. She noted that American Jewish women, having been raised in a diverse environment, “feel a pull for a Jewish home, not just Hebrew. Israelis want Hebrew and are much more confident about their ability to create a Jewish home. They feel excitement about being in a diverse environment after having grown up in homogenous environment, and they feel less pressure to connect with the Jewish community — instead they want to connect with other Israelis.”

The focus groups also revealed that new mothers are “craving connections,” fearful of “being judged” and looking to make friends who have children around the same age as theirs.

“They are craving connections based around validation — people want a supportive cohort, and connecting early on fosters stronger relationships.”

Other common themes, Dickstein said, were an interest “in Jewish culture, not religion,” in “fun” experiences revolving around “holidays, food and family” and the desire for “Jewish community to be convenient and undemanding.”

Dickstein’s take-away, and an area where her department hopes to help train Jewish communal professionals: in seeking to engage young families and their children, Jewish efforts should focus less on creating programs and events and more on helping facilitate social networks among young parents.

“People running Tot Shabbat programs generally are not paying enough attention to relationship-building,” she said. “We have to shift the desired outcome from rituals and affiliation to relationships.”; @julie_wiener