New efforts try to strengthen Jewish nursery schools

NEW YORK — The Jerusalem Talmud recounts the story of Rabbi Joshua, whose mother carried him in his cradle to the beit midrash, or house of study, so that "his ears would become accustomed to the sounds of the Torah."

Early-childhood Jewish education has changed a bit since then, and though the curriculum may be more developmentally appropriate than it was in Rabbi Joshua's time, the field faces a number of challenges.

The bad news is that teachers in Jewish early-childhood programs generally have extremely limited education in Judaism. And many schools feel lucky to hire anyone at all.

The field's low prestige and low salaries — as well as a surge of other career options now available for women, who still dominate the field — make recruitment of new teachers extremely challenging. In the New York area, salaries average $20,000 with no benefits.

A recent survey in the Detroit Jewish community, for example, found that 87 percent of its early childhood teachers were older than 35, with a significant number planning to retire in the coming decade.

The good news is that there are stirrings of change in the nursery.

Since a 1993 Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education report revealed that fewer than half of early childhood educators had any Jewish education after the age of 13, a number of initiatives have been developed to strengthen teachers' Jewish knowledge, infuse the schools with more Jewish content and offer greater institutional support.

Some are being backed with serious dollars from family foundations and major philanthropic players such as Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation and the Covenant Foundation. Some examples:

*The Jewish Community Centers Association of North America is piloting a multimedia curriculum that will teach children and their parents some of the key ethical concepts outlined in Pirke Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers. The JCCA also is piloting an "online learning community" for early childhood educators, and every other year will send 22 educators to Israel for a study retreat.

*A Baltimore program, Machon L'Morim, facilitates regular text study for Jewish educators and has developed an early-childhood curriculum that infuses all topics with Judaic concepts and values.

*New York educators have formed the "Commission on the Crisis in Jewish Early Childhood Education" to draw attention to the poor salaries and to press community leaders to find ways to attract new people to the field.

*The Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations has, for the first time, hired a full-time staff person to assist its growing number of nursery schools.

*Two Conservative-movement initiatives are offering intensive Jewish learning opportunities for early-childhood teachers and helping them bring more Jewish content into everyday programming at schools.

Advocates of Jewish early-childhood education are talking about nursery school as the first step in a lifetime of learning. They are trying to capitalize on the many hours — far more than spent in afterschool religious programs — that preschool children spend in Jewish schools. They also point to the huge potential of influencing tots at an age when they are most open to learning.

"Children have so much ability — they soak up knowledge like sponges," said Adrienne Cohen, director of early-childhood education at the Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in New York.

Early-childhood advocates are eyeing not just the kids but their parents as well.

"In many places the early childhood program becomes a mini-community for families," according to the Council for Initiatives study. "For those parents who themselves have weak Jewish backgrounds or little connection to the organized Jewish community, an inviting and supportive environment can pave the way to greater Jewish involvement."

Ruth Pinkenson Feldman, the JCCA's director of early childhood services, did her doctoral research on the impact early-childhood education programs had on the Jewish identities of parents.

She found that after enrolling their children in Jewish programs, a group of Philadelphia-area parents "wanted to learn more about Judaism, developed more friendships within the Jewish community and their home practice rituals were increased," she said.

In contrast, parents with similar Jewish backgrounds who had opted for nonsectarian nursery programs, tended to drift further away from Jewish life.