If you’ve ever stepped foot inside an early childhood Jewish education center in the late morning on a weekday, you may have asked yourself if you chose the wrong career path. There’s the delicious smell of baking challah wafting through the air, the gently raucous sounds of small voices singing and playing echoing in the hallways. There are colorful displays of children’s artwork on the walls, and a walk down any corridor usually reveals classrooms stuffed with books and art materials and happy faces.
Most early childhood Jewish spaces are joyful, warm and uplifting. These are places one doesn’t readily want to leave.
But here’s a sobering statistic: In the next 3-5 years, JCC Association of North America predicts that 50% of its’ early childhood education staff will retire. Right now, there are 8-10 positions in JCC early childhood centers nationwide that are left unfilled, and it’s not because these aren’t great jobs. But somehow, young and energetic childhood educators aren’t gravitating toward this field.
So what’s happening?
“We haven’t done enough recruitment, for one,” explained Cantor Mark Horowitz, Vice President of JCCA and Director of the Sheva Center for Innovation in Early Childhood Jewish Education & Engagement. “We need better recruitment efforts on college campuses and in graduate school.”
What’s more, Horowitz explains, young Jewish educators don’t necessarily see Jewish early childhood education as a long-term career path. Perhaps it’s because the pay is notoriously low. Or perhaps it’s because many early childhood Jewish education schools don’t offer full-time positions.
Horowitz is frank about the historical moves that set our community up for the ECE staff shortage we see now. “Many of us we were tapped to be leaders and directors because we were decent practitioners, but we didn’t understand leadership, or change, or what it means to be a leader in a Jewish institution,” he offered. “As such, we accepted roles we weren’t equipped for.”
It seems that the tide may be turning though, and not just in the Jewish space. Just recently, the Harvard Graduate School of Education announced the Saul Zaentz Early Childhood Initiative, the first of its kind. Among many other programs, the initiative will include an Academy for professional learning.
Horowitz and his colleagues are on-trend. They know that Jewish families with young children continue to need excellent schools for their youngest children and JCCA is responding to that need in the most robust way it knows how. “We now understand that we need leadership training,” Horowitz continues. And as the recipients of a recent Signature Grant from The Covenant Foundation to fund a Directors’ Fellowship, JCCA staff is working toward the fruition of that ideal.
The grant will help develop the high quality personnel needed for excellence in the field of early childhood Jewish education. “We spent so much time throwing people into the job who weren’t equipped to handle it,” Horowitz said. “And that didn’t serve us well in the past. Now, we want to train new early childhood directors so that they’re prepared to be leaders.”
Beyond leadership, there are other core changes afoot in the early childhood space that Horowitz passionately describes. For one, JCCA is beginning to “embrace the Jewish piece of our work as a foundational piece instead of worrying whether we’re doing too much or too little Jewish.”
“Judaism is a religion that you live every day, not just one that you access when it comes time for a holiday,” Horowitz explained. “And for that reason, it’s a religion that fits early childhood education so well. We can use day-to-day experiences and challenges to celebrate Jewish life; Judaism informs how we greet people, how we solve conflicts, how we are hospitable to others, and on and on. I think that over the last 20 years or so, a big change in early childhood Jewish education in the JCC world is that we have begun to truly embrace Judaism as foundational for our curriculum.”
Another big change: taking note of and beginning to apply gleanings from the scientific research being done on the national national ECE scene. For years now, we’ve all been reading about the findings about how children learn (think: Play!) and how young brains work. Staying abreast of the research helps Horowitz and his colleagues develop curriculum according to what children need, from a root biological and scientific perspective.
“Up until now,” Horowitz explained, “our approach has been didactic. We’ve taught children what we think they need to know. But over the last 10 years, because of all of the research that shows otherwise, we are beginning to think about what is meaningful and interesting to children, and then together we construct knowledge.”
To that end, key JCCA ECE programs like Discover CATCH (Coordinated Approach to Child Health) bring the science into focus, in a Jewish setting, and also meet the needs of young families who are looking not only for direction while raising Jewish kids, but looking for parenting support as well. Developed at the University of Texas, Discover CATCH is a response to the national epidemic of childhood obesity. At JCCA, under the leadership of Steven Becker, the Vice President of Health and Wellness Services, a Jewish lens approach that considers the imperative of shmirat haguf offers parents tips on helping their toddlers make healthy choices, from what to order when eating out (there are “whoa” foods and “go” foods) to helping foster a love of physical activity. Currently, there are 75 JCCs across the country implementing the Discover CATCH program.
Horowitz knows that to best serve Jewish families with young children, flexibility is key, which is why teaching toddlers how to eat healthy at restaurants is so useful to the busy modern family of today. Another such offering at a number of JCCs invites parents in to share cocktails while they make school lunches for their kids. “They come in, they have a glass of wine, and they put together 5 lunches for the week,” Horowitz explained. “They’re socializing but they’re also building community while being productive and crossing off a pressing household chore.”
“Families are struggling to just keep up, financially and emotionally,” Horowitz continued. “We need to meet them where they’re at. We need to give them tips on parenting, we need to invite them into the community in ways that work for them.”
The Discover CATCH program is just one example of how Horowitz and his colleagues at JCCA understand seamless Judaism, the idea that there is no demarcation between the Judaism that happens in the synagogue or school and what happens beyond. It’s a common theme amongst the foremost practitioners, advocates, administrators and thought leaders in early childhood Jewish education today.
And Horowitz would love to see even more collaboration amongst that cohort. “It would be great if, rather than functioning in our individual silos, as we’ve done in the past, we worked together more closely,” he said. He went on to explain that in some important ways, this collaboration has already begun, as JCCA has partnered with the URJ, and together with Cathy Rolland, the URJ Director of Engaging Families with Young Children, a number of cooperative projects have started.
“That’s just the beginning,” Horowitz assured, going on to explain how he’d love to see cross-pollination amongst early childhood educators in the Jewish community, like other Jewish educators benefit from, in fields like camping and day school education.
“As early childhood Jewish educators, we have access to the proverbial gateway to Jewish life. It’s at our fingertips,” he added, emphatically. “We can help set families on a course for the rest of their lives. We should be doing that in the best way we know how. This is not a competition. This needs to be a collaboration.”
“Families that share stories about parents and grandparents, about triumphs and failures, provide powerful models for children. Children understand who they are in the world not only through their individual experience, but through the filters of family stories that provide a sense of identity through historical time...Through sharing the past, families recreate themselves in the present, and project themselves into the future.”
—“Do You Know…” The power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being
Read more about Dr. Marshall Duke and his work, here.
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project