August 26, 1999
Teaching The Tots
Bringing Jews in through the nursery school door
The Jerusalem Talmud recounts the story of Rabbi Joshua, whose mother carried him in his cradle to the Beit Midrash, or house of study, so that "his ears would become accustomed to the sounds of the Torah."
Early childhood Jewish education has changed a bit since then, and though the curriculum may be more developmentally appropriate than it was in Rabbi Joshua's time, the field faces a number of challenges.
The bad news is that teachers in Jewish early childhood programs generally have extremely limited Jewish educations. And many schools feel lucky to hire anyone at all.
The field's low prestige and low salaries -- in the New York area teachers average $20,000 with no benefits -- as well as a surge of other career options now available for women, make recruitment of new teachers extremely challenging.
A recent survey in the Detroit Jewish community, for example, found that 87 percent of its early childhood teachers were older than 35, with a significant number planning to retire in the coming decade.
The staff of the Beth El nursery school in Minneapolis recently had to call all its parents and plead with them to consider teaching, because otherwise it would not be able to continue operating.
The good news is that there are stirrings of change in the nursery.
Since a 1993 Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education report revealed that fewer than half of early childhood educators possessed any Jewish education after the age of 13, a number of initiatives have been developed to strengthen teachers' Jewish knowledge, infuse the schools with more Jewish content and offer greater institutional support.
Some are being backed with serious dollars from family foundations and major philanthropic players such as Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation and the Covenant Foundation.
* The Jewish Community Centers Association of North America is piloting a multimedia curriculum that will teach children and their parents some of the key ethical concepts outlined in Pirke Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers. The JCCA also is piloting an "online learning community" for early childhood educators, and every other year will send 22 educators to Israel for a study retreat.
* A Baltimore program, Machon L'Morim, facilitates regular text study for Jewish educators and has developed an early childhood curriculum that infuses all topics with Judaic concepts and values.
* New York educators have formed the "Commission on the Crisis in Jewish Early Childhood Education" to draw attention to the poor salaries and to press community leaders to find ways to attract new people to the field.
* The Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations has, for the first time, hired a full-time staff person to assist the growing number of Reform nursery schools.
* Two Conservative movement initiatives are offering intensive Jewish learning opportunities for early childhood teachers and helping them bring more Jewish content into everyday programming at schools.
Advocates of Jewish early childhood education are talking about nursery school as the first step in a lifetime of learning. They are trying to capitalize on the many hours -- far more than spent in supplemental schools -- that preschool children spend in Jewish schools, and they point to the huge potential of affecting tots at an age when they are most open to learning.
"Children have so much ability -- they soak up knowledge like a sponge," said Adrienne Cohen, director of early childhood education at the Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in New York.
Educators are also trying to ensure that nursery programs are central parts of the institutions that host them and not just afterthoughts or, as has been the case in many synagogues and JCC's, a revenue source to subsidize other programs.
Early childhood advocates are eyeing not just the kids, but their parents as well.
"In many places the early childhood program becomes a mini-community for families," said the Council for Initiatives study. "For those parents who themselves have weak Jewish backgrounds or little connection to the organized Jewish community, an inviting and supportive environment can pave the way to greater Jewish involvement."
Ruth Pinkenson Feldman, the JCCA's director of early childhood services, did her doctoral research on the impact early childhood education programs had on the Jewish identities of parents.
She found that after enrolling their children in Jewish programs, a group of Philadelphia-area parents "wanted to learn more about Judaism, developed more friendships within the Jewish community and their home practice rituals were increased," she said in an interview.
In contrast, parents with similar Jewish backgrounds who had opted for non-sectarian nursery programs, tended to drift further away from Jewish life, said Feldman, who is now coordinating the JCCA's Pirke Avot project.
People are also rethinking curricula, bringing in more Jewish concepts and not just discussion of holidays or how-to's.
"Much of the curriculum in early childhood has been focused on Jewish practice -- how to light candles, what to do on the holidays," said Feldman.
While those rituals are important, they "make the most sense when children come from homes where that's already being done," she said.
"If we teach children where our values come from and what they are," she added, a child can apply those concepts "regardless of how many kiddush cups are in the house."
Shifting from holidays to concepts also allows for a more integrated approach to Jewish learning. For example, the Machon L'Morim curriculum developed in Baltimore encourages teachers to bring Jewish concepts into all discussions and projects; while learning the parts of the body, students might explore the concept of b'tselem elohim, the idea that humans are created in God's image.
But nothing can happen without qualified teachers well versed in Judaism.
"The teachers need to be introduced to text study as adults and be spiritually and emotionally reconnected to Judaism," said Ilene Vogelstein, director of Machon L'Morim.
The hope is that ongoing training and Jewish study will not only enhance the teachers' work, but elevate their status and, perhaps, pave the way to higher salaries.
Some critics question whether serious Jewish learning can occur at such a young age and suggest that communal funds would be better spent on institutions such as day schools.
But early childhood advocates argue that it's not an either-or, and note that successful programs get families in the habit of Jewish learning and encourage them to enroll their children in day schools and supplemental schools.
"We want the families to taste Jewish learning so that they'll begin to build a commitment," said the JCCA's Feldman.
"No one ever left kindergarten feeling they knew all there was to learn about Judaism," she said. "There's a world of learning ahead. This is just getting them on the right track."
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