Oak Park resident Dina Torgan, who attends a Mommy and Me program at Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks with her 9-month-old daughter, is confident that their participation will pay big dividends down the road, laying a strong foundation for a lifetime of Jewish learning.
“I know it is important to me and my family that when our daughter is ready for preschool, she attend a Jewish school to be exposed to Jewish life early on,” she said. “The Mommy and Me program has been invaluable, as a first-time mom. It is great to connect with other moms and just be a part of the Jewish community in general.”
That’s one reason Torgan was thrilled to learn about a new incentive from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and BJE-Builders of Jewish Education to help more parents get involved with such classes filled with music, play, traditions and other Jews.
Funded by an initial allocation from Federation of $45,000, the Federation Parent and Me voucher program began in September and is being run by BJE. The pilot program — which reduces a parent’s cost by 70 percent for an initial session of classes — is available at certain synagogues in the West San Fernando and Conejo valleys.
“We want to make Jewish programs more affordable and accessible to families,” said Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of Federation. He said there will be “additional significant funding once the program gets going.”
“The program is designed to ease the pathway into participation in organized Jewish life for families by offering a financial incentive to try a Jewish program that competes well with similar non-Jewish programs in the marketplace,” said Phil Liff-Grieff, associate director of BJE. “Parent and Me classes were chosen because they are relatively inexpensive, and they come at a point in the life of a family when directions are set for future connections and involvement.”
The voucher program works like this: It pays half of the tuition for an eight-to-12-week Parent and Me session with a participating temple that can normally cost between $140 and $180. The congregation agrees to pay an additional 20 percent — and is reimbursed by Federation for every voucher it receives — leaving the participating family with only 30 percent of the cost. Once a participant completes the online application at bjela.org/parentandme — no financial need is necessary — families receive a voucher that is presented when enrolling.
“In order to qualify, one parent must be Jewish, or identify as Jewish, and this must be the first time a family has availed themselves of a Jewish experience for a child,” Liff-Grieff said. “The goal is to sway families who are looking for comparable programs in a variety of places.”
So far, 33 vouchers have been given out. Organizers would like to distribute another 125 vouchers over the next few months.
Cheryl Cohen, Parent and Me coordinator at Temple Aliyah, a participating Conservative congregation in Woodland Hills, thinks the vouchers help in recruiting and encourage families to maintain a connection to the Jewish community.
“We have maybe received five new participants, and a few newly enrolled that already knew about Temple Aliyah,” she said. “While that might not seem like a lot, our classes fill up at 12 families so the addition is almost half a class.”
The other participating valley congregations are Temple Etz Chaim, Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills and Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks.
“Because the funds for this pilot project were limited, it was decided to focus on a clearly delineated geographic area that contained a selection of good Jewish Parent and Me programs and a significant population of families with young children,” Liff-Grieff said.
Donna Becker, Temple Adat Elohim’s early childhood education director, has seen an increase in the families participating in the program and created an evening Parent and Me class for working parents.
“I love the idea of being supported by BJE and Federation, and I think these kinds of programs and outreach are great,” she said.
For those families who take part in the voucher program and then decide to re-enroll in a Parent and Me series, Federation will cover 25 percent of the second session, with families paying the full amount for future sessions.
“I can’t wait to tell the parents that next session has an additional discount as well,” Becker said. “This is the entry to our temple family, and it needs to be affordable, convenient and a wonderful experience.”
Debbie Blumenthal, director of early childhood education at Etz Chaim, said these sorts of programs can be the start of something great. It’s common for Parent and Me friends to want to join preschool together, she said.
“We hope that as they are building relationships and becoming attached not only to each other, but to our temple family … that it will be only natural that they will stay, become members and send their children here for preschool.”