For the past 25 years, Maxine (“Max”) Segal Handelman has helped transform Chicago’s Anshe Emet Synagogue into a thriving hub for young families. In addition to her work at Anshe Emet, Handelman has served in many other roles in Jewish education, including as a teacher, an early childhood education specialist for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, a Jewish early childhood consultant, and the author of two books. Three years ago, she became Anshe Emet’s first full-time Director of Family Life & Learning.
What appeals to you about working with young children?
Very young children are full of wonder. You can actually see them learning. I have two teenage daughters right now, and they’re incredible, but I can’t look at them and say, “Wow, you didn’t know how to do that yesterday.” But you can look at a baby or a toddler or a 3-year-old and say, “You didn’t know how to do that yesterday!” I find that just amazing.
“I want people to live full lives that are informed and enriched by Jewish values, and I know that will happen if they have friends to do it with.”
How did you decide you wanted to be a Jewish educator?
The summer after my freshman year of college, I came back home to Deerfield, the Chicago suburb where I’d grown up. Pretty much by accident, I ended up working at Moriah Early Childhood Center, and I fell in love. I was already thinking about working with young children, and I loved being Jewish: I grew up in a very active Reform Jewish home, and my summers at Habonim Dror Camp Tavor were life-changing. At Moriah, these two things that I loved came together. It was this epiphany of, “This is home. This is what I need to do with my life forever.”
Working with children and families, how do you measure success?
Friendship by friendship. I want people to live full lives that are informed and enriched by Jewish values, and I know that will happen if they have friends to do it with. There’s a group of high school boys who met when they were toddlers, after their families started coming to our “Shalom Shabbat” service. The boys recently decided on their own that they wanted to make Shabbat dinner together, and they made it happen. That’s one of my crowning achievements.
You consider yourself not only an educator, but a storyteller. What do you find compelling about storytelling?
Storytelling takes people to a very magical place. It’s a beautiful way for people to connect to their Jewish souls, and it works for audiences of every age. Over the summer, a group of Anshe Emet high schoolers worked with our youth director to figure out what kind of programming they want. They said, “We want storytime with Max! Now that we’re older, we don’t get to do that anymore!” So I’m going to do a virtual storytime with high schoolers. And I’m so thrilled!
“Storytelling takes people to a very magical place. It’s a beautiful way for people to connect to their Jewish souls.”
Do you have a favorite story?
I especially love telling “The Challahs in the Ark,” about a man who places freshly baked loaves beside the Torah scroll only to find, years later—well, I won’t spoil the plot. My favorite versions are Aubrey Davis’s children’s book “Bagels from Benny” and [internationally acclaimed storyteller] Syd Lieberman’s adaptation.
What advice would you give the next generation of Jewish early childhood educators?
Always keep at the forefront that your job is not just to give children an excellent education, but to build a foundation where families can become connected to Jewish life. That’s not always obvious. As an early childhood educator, you may have the child in the school all day but only bring the parents in for certain programs. The field of engaging families with young children is still slightly uncharted territory. We can help families build friendships, we can offer families Jewish know-how. And they will build Jewish community that lasts a lifetime.