By Julie Wiener
NEW YORK (JTA) — At the federation movement’s General Assembly in Jerusalem in early November, the chairman of the network did something unusual for Jewish power gatherings: He devoted the bulk of his speech to nursery school.
Calling Jewish preschool the “seedbed of our community,” the chairman of Jewish Federations of North America, Michael Siegal, pledged to raise $1 billion over the next decade for a Jewish revitalization plan with tuition-free Jewish preschool as its centerpiece. By offering free Jewish preschool to every Jewish child in America, Siegal said, “We would be opening ourselves to generation upon generation of more active, more connected, more Jewish Jews.”
But many Jewish early childhood professionals don’t see free tuition as a viable or effective strategy.
At a meeting last week in Washington of the Alliance for Jewish Early Childhood Education, representatives of several national organizations that work with Jewish preschools discussed how best to leverage Siegal’s pronouncement — which he and Jewish Federations CEO Jerry Silverman also made in an Op-Ed.
Cathy Rolland, director of early childhood for the Union for Reform Judaism and co-chair of the alliance, said the free preschool proposal has “ignited an important conversation” about the best way to support and engage Jewish youngsters and their parents. “It’s stirred up people and gotten them to find a collective voice,” she said.
In interviews with JTA, numerous Jewish early childhood leaders said they were taken by surprise by Siegal’s proposal. While they are eager to bring more families into their doors and wouldn’t turn down tuition subsidies, they told JTA that they would prefer to see investments made in program quality, professional development, teacher compensation and seeding more full-day programs that enroll not just preschool-age kids, but infants and toddlers.
“I’m thrilled the case for Jewish preschool is out there,” said Valerie Lustgarten, an education consultant who is one of five founders of the Paradigm Project, a new group advocating for Jewish early childhood education and offering coaching and other services. “But more than money, it’s about quality and engaging parents,” she said. “I don’t think Jewish families will come in just because it’s free.”
It is unclear just how many people could be served with $1 billion, as annual tuition at Jewish nursery schools ranges from $6,000-$20,000 per year, and Jewish early childhood leaders estimate there are 540,000 Jewish children under age 5 in the United States.
While most American Jewish children receive a preschool education, fewer than a quarter do so in a Jewish program, according to the latest study of the subject, in 2008. According to Rolland, enrollment has declined since then due to the recession and competition in several states from universal pre-K programs.
Studies suggest that Jewish preschool can play a vital role not just in education, but in connecting families to Jewish community. A 2010 study by Brandeis University’s Mark Rosen outlined the high significance of the first years of a child’s life in cementing family patterns and friendships. Peter Blair, one of several Jewish early childhood educators who helped Lustgarten launch the Paradigm Project last year, says new parents are at a life stage when they are particularly open to connecting with Judaism.
“Many people step away from Jewish life for years after their bar or bat mitzvah, and it’s when they have their own children that they start thinking about what it means to raise Jewish children and what they want to pass down,” Blair said.
But Jewish preschool has not gotten much attention in the Jewish organizational world. The Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative, a national effort launched in 2005 to strengthen Jewish preschool programs, closed after just six years in part because it was unable to attract sufficient funding. Salaries for early childhood teachers are notoriously low, quality and Jewish content are inconsistent, and many synagogues and JCCs that host early childhood programs expect them to be moneymakers rather than drivers of Jewish engagement that require investment.
In recent years, as many Jewish federations have restructured or eliminated central agencies for Jewish education, support and training for Jewish early childhood educators has been cut. Neither the Avi Chai Foundation nor the Jim Joseph Foundation, the two largest national funders of Jewish education, have made preschool a major spending priority. (Jim Joseph, however, was one of the funding partners of the defunct Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative and now funds a national leadership training program for new early childhood directors.)
Maxine Handelman, the early childhood education consultant for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, says early childhood needs a national advocate and coordinating body to generate funds and expertise, similar to the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, or PEJE, did for day schools in the late 1990s.
“If there were a PEJE for early childhood, that helps institutions start an early childhood program and institute best practices,” she said, “that would be a game-changer.”
While tuition may be one thing deterring families from enrolling their children in Jewish preschools, Handelman said that’s not among the top reasons. Studies have shown that convenience, word-of-mouth and where friends go are the most influential factors in Jewish parents’ decisions about where to enroll their children.
In addition to serving younger children and offering more full-day options, advocates say preschool directors and teachers need more training, not just in educating tots and infusing Judaism into their curricula, but in connecting parents to Jewish life and helping them form friendships with other Jewish parents.
Shellie Dickstein, director of early childhood and family engagement at New York’s Jewish Education Project, said professionals in the field need to see themselves as “family networkers, relationship-builders and concierges.”
“That requires some training, and we need to be more mindful about the kind of skills it takes,” she said.
There are a few other relatively new efforts to bolster Jewish preschool.
The Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College are recruiting for their third cohort of the Jewish Early Childhood Educators Leadership Institute, a 15-month program that provides new and aspiring directors of Jewish preschools with studying, mentorship and community-building opportunities
United Synagogue recently launched a training program for new early childhood directors, and the Reform movement is exploring how to seed more full-time child-care programs.
The JCC Association of North America in recent years has increased its support and professional development for both preschool directors and staff.
A Chabad early childhood initiative has helped create more than 45 new preschools since 2010, and there are plans to create another 100 over the next four years.