With their abundant classroom hours, impressionable young students and highly involved parents, Jewish nursery schools have the power to help shape the Jewish identity of children and their families.
But only 14 percent of American Jewish youngsters are enrolled in such programs.
And many Jewish early childhood programs are not as effective as they might be at teaching Judaism, because their educators lack strong backgrounds in Jewish education and the programs' goals for religious education are often vague.
Those are among the findings of a new study conducted by the Jewish Early Childhood Education Partnership, a new national group that aims to "sensitize and inform local and national Jewish communities about the power and potential of early childhood education."
Based on a survey of 152 nursery school directors in 28 states, the study is believed to be the first national research focusing exclusively on this age, which has in the past been "underestimated," said Ilene Vogelstein, the education partnership's director.
Most Jewish nursery schools are based in synagogues, Jewish community centers and day schools.
Vogelstein, who previously oversaw a Baltimore text-study program for Jewish early childhood educators, said she is hoping to get Jewish leaders to recognize that early childhood education is "not baby-sitting."
"These children are capable of greater intellectual abilities than we give them credit for, and they need to have different kinds of experiences," she said.
There have been a number of new initiatives in the past few years in the areas of professional development, curriculum development and even some experiments with Hebrew immersion programs for nursery school students.
But early childhood programs generally get less attention and funds than other endeavors, such as day schools and family education.
As the study notes, nursery schools are the only formal Jewish education programs that generally do not receive Jewish federation allocations.
Among the study's other findings:\n
• There are an estimated 100,000 children under the age of 6 in Jewish early childhood programs in North America, including day school kindergartens. Seventy-seven percent of the students are Jewish, with Jewish enrollment ranging from 25 percent in some community center settings to 100 percent in some synagogue-based schools.\n
• More than one-quarter of the children enrolled in early childhood programs spend 30 hours or more per week there.\n
• There is a significant drop-off in enrollment between age 4 and 5, a trend assumed to result from the fact that many families switch their children to a public school for kindergarten.\n
• Sixty-one percent of the programs have mission statements, of which 88 percent list some Jewish education as part of their mission. But 12 percent of those with mission statements do not mention Judaism at all.\n
• Half the directors surveyed did not respond or did not know the answer when asked if their teachers' religious philosophy is compatible with the school's, and 68 percent who did respond said they do not think it is important for the teachers to share the school's religious philosophy.\n
• Among the staff, 98 percent of early childhood professionals in Jewish programs are women, and 69 percent are Jewish. The percentage of non-Jewish teachers and assistant teachers in Jewish nursery schools is three times higher than reported in a 1994 Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education study.\n
• Forty-five percent of the Jewish teachers had no Jewish education beyond afternoon Hebrew school.\n
• The average salary for early childhood teachers is $19,400, with no benefits. That is comparable to compensation in non-Jewish early childhood programs.\n
• The majority of Jewish nursery school directors are between the ages of 50 and 59, and an estimated 79 percent will reach retirement within 10-15 years.
Early childhood educators emphasize the importance of early childhood Jewish education.
Jewish nursery schools not only provide an early Jewish foundation for children, but serve as "natural feeders into synagogue schools" and "natural feeders into the Jewish community in general," Vogelstein said.
Recent research on brain development indicates that early childhood education is more influential over the long-term than previously believed, Vogelstein said.
Ruth Pinkenson Feldman, the director of early childhood services at the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America and a member of the partnership's advisory board, said she was pleased with the study and hopes that it spurs more efforts to improve nursery schools.
In particular, she said, more funding is needed for "ongoing training, recruitment and enhancement" of early childhood educators.
Feldman said more work is also needed to recruit students, especially now that the schools are competing with public schools, some of which are now offering tuition-free pre-kindergarten programs, as well as kindergarten.
"There are a lot of families we're not reaching at all," she said.
Once families opt for secular, rather than Jewish nursery programs, they are on a "different calendar, social network and framework, and you might not get them back," she said.
Jonathan Woocher, executive vice president of the Jewish Education Service of North America and head of the United Jewish Communities' Renaissance and Renewal Pillar, said he welcomed the new study and is "looking as part of our own strategic planning at how we can expand work in the area of early childhood."
So why has it not yet gotten more attention?
Woocher speculated that the attitude toward Jewish early childhood education mirrors the broader attitude toward early childhood education in the United States, which he said is "not close to the top of the list in terms of countries that invest in early childhood education."
The same group also plans to release a study soon that measures the impact of Jewish early childhood education on children and their parents.