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Beyond Torah for Tots Get ’em While They’re Young: Preschools Get First Crack at Families

March 24, 2006
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Fact: Teaching torah to toddlers can lead to a lifetime of Jewish learning. Fact: Jewish preschools serve as a gateway to Jewish life for the whole family. Fact: Jewish preschools are bursting at the seams. Yet despite these realities, borne out by research, Jewish preschools are the poor cousins in the Jewish educational family.

Teachers are paid poorly — $19,400 is an average salary, according to one recent report — and few young Jews are going into the field. Job prestige is low and communal support is lackluster. Preschools are the only formal educational venue that is not a direct recipient of Jewish federation dollars, according to a 2002 report of the Jewish Early Childhood Education Partnership.

Preschool directors around the country report that resources are being squeezed even as classrooms are bursting with new children.

More than 1,000 schools across the United States educate some 122,500 children, a number which has doubled in the past decade.

Still, changing the name from “preschool” to “early childhood education center” — as many are doing to emphasize that there’s nothing “pre” about meeting the developmental needs of 2-to-5-year-olds — hasn’t done much to raise the profile of a field that many people still think of as glorified baby-sitting.

In addition, say a growing number of experts, a tremendous outreach opportunity is being squandered.

The Jewish community is trying hard to find unaffiliated Jews and bring them in, but it is paying “scant attention” to the preschool families already in the system, says Pearl Beck, director of “Jewish Preschools as Gateways to Jewish Life,” another 2002 study funded by the Jewish Early Childhood Education Partnership. JECEP was a temporary organization that had been created to study and advocate for increased attention to preschools.

The lack of commitment to the world of early childhood education is insulting, wrong and self-defeating, say experts in the field.

Their view is supported by a spate of recent studies that show that Jewish early childhood education not only influences the future course of a child’s Jewish development; it can have a profound impact on the Jewish behavior and practice of the entire family.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, the senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., acknowledged both the lack of respect for — and the vital role of — Jewish educators at a recent gathering of Reform teachers and directors.

“You’re the first adult outside the family a child bonds with, the first professional that will encounter these young families,” Feinstein told the 150 women gathered in San Diego earlier this year for the annual conference of the Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism.

“Your responsibility is much more than the child, it’s to teach the family how to be a family, a Jewish family. That’s your sacred responsibility.”

Ilene Vogelstein, special projects director in the early childhood department of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, known as CAJE, goes even further.

“The early childhood experience, as the start of Jewish practices at home and the understanding of Jewish values, is the gateway for the family to move into future Jewish experiences,” she says.

The snowball effect is overwhelming, the research shows: Parents of children in Jewish preschools are more likely to join a synagogue; they are more likely to enroll in adult education courses; and they often begin lighting Shabbat candles and celebrating Jewish holidays at home because of what their kids learn in the classroom.

Conversely, Jewish families with children in non-sectarian preschools tell researchers they celebrate fewer Jewish holidays and feel less involved Jewishly.

Take Sarah Ritthaler’s family. Her 5-year-old son, Daniel, attends preschool at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael, Calif. Ritthaler’s husband is not Jewish, and a condition of their marriage was that she be allowed to raise the children Jewishly.

“The impact has been profound,” she says of her son’s preschool experience.

“My husband didn’t know what a sukkah was, and now he’s building one in the yard because Daniel at 3 years old came home and said, ‘Where’s the sukkah?’ “

The family also now celebrates Shabbat every Friday evening.

“We live on a Jewish calendar because of this place,” Ritthaler says, holding her son in her lap as his teacher shows the class a chart of the Hebrew months.

“What gives me chills is our son identifying as a Jew. People say, why spend the money at this age? But I’m seeing before my eyes the unfolding of a Jewish soul.”

The latest findings on the impact of Jewish preschools, about to be released by the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education of Greater Philadelphia, surprised even those who directed the study, according to Helene Tigay, the group’s executive director.

The study surveyed parents of 4- and 5-year-olds at 25 of the 48 preschools in the greater Philadelphia area. Among the key findings from the 218 survey forms that were returned:

70 percent said they are now more aware of the Jewish calendar;

41 percent said they starting lighting Shabbat candles;

27 percent have begun attending synagogue services;

62 percent said that engaging in observances that included their children is “more of a priority;”

51 percent indicated they are “more aware” of positive feelings about being Jewish; and

93 percent said they plan to send their children for further Jewish schooling.

The 2002 “Gateways” study by the Jewish Early Childhood Education Partnership, which interviewed parents of preschoolers at JCCs and Reform and Conservative congregations in Detroit, Chicago and Baltimore, found similar results.

Nearly 70 percent claimed they were doing “something different” in terms of Jewish observance or lifestyle, and had an “increased interest” in Jewish education as well as an “enhanced sense” of Jewish community.

The impact on the children themselves is equally dramatic. Kids who go to Jewish preschool have a higher chance of remaining Jewishly involved throughout their lives, says sociologist Steven Cohen of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

In an analysis of the early childhood education data from the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, directed by the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of North American Federations, Cohen found that more than 40 percent of Jewish children who go to Jewish preschool continue on to Jewish day school.

He also found that 86 percent of Jewish preschoolers go on to day schools, supplemental Hebrew school, and/or Jewish camp.

While preschool doesn’t necessarily convince parents to continue a child’s Jewish education — they might have done that anyway — Cohen says the linkage is clear.

“Very few families that send their kids to Jewish preschool drop out of the Jewish educational system,” says Cohen, who analyzed the data for a December 2005 report for the Avi Chai Foundation, which supports Jewish education.

Rabbi Josh Elkin, executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, a group focused on day-school education that is looking at the links between day schools and preschools, says that it is clear from research how profound an effect early childhood education can have on a child in general.

While there is a lack of hard data on the Jewish programs, he says, anecdotal evidence shows “there is a lot of hard-wiring of Jewish identity and Jewish values that takes place in many Jewish early childhood programs.”

When Fred and Allison Greenbaum moved to Stamford, Conn., they chose their home because it was close to one of the city’s best public schools.

But after their oldest son, Richie, spent two and a half years in the Gan Yeladim nursery school run by Chabad-Lubavitch of Stamford, they decided to send him to a non-denominational community day school.

It was obvious, Allison Greenbaum says, that he wanted to be in a Jewish environment.

“We started him in the public school, but he was drawing pictures of boys with kippahs, and he’d point to mountains and say, look, that’s Har Sinai,” the mountain where the Bible says Moses received the 10 Commandments.

“I saw it was so much a part of him, so much he had enjoyed and was now missing — the singing, the traditions.”

If he hadn’t gone to preschool, she says, “day school wouldn’t have even been on our radar.”

In addition, the family, who was totally unaffiliated, has joined a local Conservative congregation and Allison Greenbaum now sits on the board of the local federation.

The preschool connection is particularly important among non-Orthodox families, who are, experts say, less likely to continue their child’s Jewish education than Orthodox parents.

Preschool does not greatly influence the Jewish behavior of most Orthodox families, says Rabbi Moshe Krupka, national executive director of the Orthodox Union. Since Orthodox families are already observant and affiliated, preschool complements a Jewish home life and “sets the foundation for a lifelong pursuit of Jewish knowledge and practice,” he says.

According to CAJE figures in 2004, of the 122,500 children in Jewish preschools, nearly 104,000 are Jewish. According to CAJE figures, one in four Jews under the age of 6 attend a Jewish preschool.

While different studies give different numbers for the under-6 Jewish population in the United States, experts in the field generally cite the CAJE figure of 430,000.

Of the Jewish children in Jewish preschools, 29,000 are in Orthodox schools. Nearly 75,000 are in Conservative, Reform, JCC and other community-run preschools. Many, if not most, of those families are unaffiliated; many observe few if any Jewish rituals at home.

But despite the increased interest and connection to Jewish life that families of preschoolers display, the organized Jewish world isn’t following up on that interest, say those involved in the field.

“Unfortunately, and it continues to baffle me, many of the Jewish institutions — the philanthropists, the federations — only see a 2-year-old, they don’t see the family,” says Vogelstein of CAJE. “It’s a package deal. What we do in early childhood programs will have an impact, in a positive or negative way, on the entire family.”

Preschools are a great way to reach the key 20- and 30-something demographic that the Jewish community is trying so hard to engage, says Tigay of the Auerbach agency.

JDate and hipster Purim parties are all well and good, but many young Jews are home with the kids.

“Early childhood education is the ultimate opportunity to reach young Jewish adults,” she says. “You don’t have to go to bars to reach them. Their kids are in Jewish nursery schools.”

Helen Cohen, director of the Frances Jacobson Early Childhood Center at Temple Israel, a large Reform congregation in Boston, agrees.

“Parents at this stage are open and eager to do the best for their child,” she says. “Once they get to religious school, the momentum somewhat wanes. We get them when they’re just starting out, and the enthusiasm is high, the motivation is high.”

The history of Jewish preschools in America show how things have changed. A handful of preschools were set up in the 1930s to provide working mothers with day care for their children. Those early schools were non-denominational, communal schools, focused more on integrating the children of Jewish immigrants into American culture than instilling Jewish identity, which it was assumed they would get at home.

The first Orthodox and Conservative preschools appeared in the late 1940s and early 1950s, followed later by Reform preschools, says Rena Rotenberg, founder of the early childhood department for Baltimore’s board of Jewish education.

The preschool at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in the Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood, was set up 45 years ago by young parents who “wanted play opportunities for their children in a Jewish setting,” says director Ann Altus. “The goals were different than today — it was to serve members’ needs.”

Today, when people live far apart rather than in the close-knit Jewish neighborhoods of their grandparents, preschools can fill an important community-building function, she says.

Young Jewish parents develop social circles with other parents from their kids’ preschools, and that often leads to greater Jewish community involvement. “People want to connect with others like themselves,” Altus says.

Very few Conservative and no virtually Reform preschools require families to belong to the sponsoring congregation. In contrast, families who enroll their children in a congregation’s religious school are expected to be members.

Nancy Bossov, director of early childhood education for the Union for Reform Judaism, estimates that just half the parents of kids in Reform preschools are synagogue members.

Many synagogues, in fact, establish preschools precisely to bring new members into their congregations.

When Ganon Gil, a 50-year-old independent Jewish preschool in Beachwood, Ohio, was absorbed by a nearby Reform congregation two years ago to bolster membership, just three of its families were temple members.

This year, reports preschool director Lori Kowit, that number jumped to 25. The synagogue leadership is ecstatic, she says.

Some synagogues encourage the process by reducing congregational dues for their preschool parents, by including membership in tuition or by giving priority enrollment in the schools to temple members.

Parents might join a synagogue to secure a place for their child in a popular congregational preschool, or to receive tuition discounts, but that doesn’t mean they stay.

Some join only while their children are in preschool, then drop their membership — and pull their kid out of Jewish school — until third or fourth grade, when the child needs to start bar or bat mitzvah training.

Rabbi Jan Katzew, lifelong Jewish learning director for the Union for Reform Judaism, says there is a precipitous drop-off in the Reform community after preschool: 10,000 4-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K classes at Reform congregations around the country, but just 4,000 are enrolled in the first year of religious school.

That’s even worse, he says, than the drop-off after bar and bat mitzvah.

To stem that tide, the Reform movement is developing a continuous curriculum that goes from preschool through seventh grade, to emphasize that preschool is part of a lifelong learning process.

“If we’re going to take Jewish education seriously, it has to be coterminous with Jewish life,” he says. Preschool directors and teachers are often key to helping parents move permanently into the Jewish community — or to driving them, and their children, away.

“We need to be putting tons of money into training our professionals, not just to work with kids, but with parents,” says Tigay of the Auerbach agency.

Early Jewish childhood education experts agree that while a lot more resources need to be invested in bolstering early childhood education and cultivating the families involved, the situation has recently begun to improve.

“The whole field has been elevated significantly in the past three to five years,” says Steve Kraus, director of day school, congregational and communal education initiatives at JESNA, the federation system’s organization focused on Jewish education.

Indeed, more Jewish colleges are offering early childhood certification and degrees, and more preschools are obtaining national accreditation. There are new funding initiatives, such as the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative, which is running a pilot program to help reach out to Jewish families, and Project Kavod, a joint project of CAJE and the Miami federation, which last year researched work conditions for preschool teachers in southern Florida.

The Reform and Conservative movements have hired national coordinators for their preschools in the past few years. And three years ago, the Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism became the first professional organization for Jewish preschool teachers and directors.

Cathy Rolland, president of that organization, says 10 years ago she was making $20,000 a year as a preschool director. Today, she says, directors in the larger schools can make $75,000, and almost all of them have been brought into the Reform movement’s pension plan.

“Now we’re fighting to get pensions for our teachers,” she says.

“We’re finally getting the lay leadership as well as the rabbis to understand that Jewish identity begins with us, not with the religious school. So many of the rabbis are from the old school and don’t take us seriously. But we’re getting in new young rabbis with families, and it’s changing.”

While preschools are still not receiving the multi-million-dollar gifts that go to Jewish day schools, that may not be far off, says Kraus.

The December 2005 Avi Chai study, “Linking the Silos,” proposed that federations, philanthropists and Jewish educators work more closely to improve communication between themselves and the entire Jewish educational system, from preschool through adult learning, to capitalize on the momentum created when a child is first placed in Jewish preschool.

Teachers and directors have to talk to parents, day school directors have to talk to preschools, synagogues need to work with federations, and the entire Jewish community needs to recognize how each institution feeds into the next.

And it all begins with the 2-year-olds.

“Preschool directors have the opportunity,” says researcher Cohen, “to change these Jewish students’ lives.”

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