Editor’s note: Last week, the Avi Chai Foundation released the fourth census of Jewish day schools in the U.S. Conducted by Dr. Marvin Schick, the census indicated dramatic increase in Jewish day school attendance. This would be good news except for the fact that it relates only to the Orthodox sector. According to the study, “enrollment has declined in non-Orthodox schools overall . . . a decrease from 20% as reported in 1998-99.” Not so, however, with regard to early childhood education. In this article, lubavitch.com explores the phenomenon of Chabad’s preschool appeal where unaffiliated parents are increasingly choosing a Jewish preschool for their children. All of which begs a question: What can Jewish educators learn from this and is the model adaptable to Jewish day schools?
It was Eliana Plitt’s first week as a first grader at her Foster City California public school. During a class discussion about the calendar year, her teacher mentioned that “everyone celebrates Christmas . . .” Eliana’s hand flew up, and when called upon she asserted with confidence: “I don’t, I celebrate Chanukah.” The teacher immediately acceded that there were indeed other religious holidays, and Eliana’s classmates responded enthusiastically, telling her how lucky she was to have eight whole days of celebration.
Eliana’s mom, Jessica, a civil rights attorney with the Department of Education, relates this story with pride, and attributes her young child’s confidence in her Jewish identity to the strong Jewish preschool education she received.
“When I was looking into preschools, I wanted a school that would give my children a strong sense of Judaism before they went off to public school,” says Jessica.
Chai Preschool in San Mateo, which has earned a wide reputation for its outstanding program, inspired Jessica’s daughter and her currently enrolled twin sons to take ownership of their Jewish identity, all while developing a love of learning and sense of discovery and purpose in the world around them.
This preschool, and many of Chabad’s 400-plus early childhood facilities scattered the length and breadth of North America, are contributing to a marked shift in the educational priorities of Jewish families with little or no affiliation. Indeed, in 2010, the Machne Israel Development Fund–Chabad’s social services division, launched the David and Lara Slager Early Childhood Initiative to promote Jewish continuity through the development of Jewish preschools, awarding grants to help establish and expand preschools in the U.S. Canada, Australia and South Africa.
“The early-childhood years are formative time from an educational, a psychological and developmental standpoint,” says Tzivie Greenberg, director of the Gan Garret Preschool in Vancouver, Washington. “There’s a well-known Jewish analogy that a child is like a seed. When that seed is watered and nurtured it will grow deep, strong roots that will act as a foundation throughout its life. So we want to give them a foundation from when they are very young and surround them with positive educational and Jewish experiences,” she adds.
Professor Steven Cohen of the Jewish Social Policy at HUC-JIRs concurs. “The value of a Jewish preschool assures children a solid Jewish identity, one that will carry them into adulthood and will strongly influence their choice of spouse, as well as whether to raise their families as Jews. All the research demonstrates that strong Jewish social networks—lots of Jewish friends, schoolmates, neighbors, etc.—appreciably raise the probability of in-marriage and of raising one’s children as Jews.”
For this reason, parents will place preschool tuition at the top of their budgeting priorities, digging deep into their pockets to cover private Jewish school tuition, which is often as high $20,000—comparable to other area schools in some cities—but much less in smaller towns where the fees may be several thousand dollars a year. Regardless, administrators will accommodate families, often working with local Federations and private community members who will provide scholarship funds to offset the gap and make Jewish education affordable to families who want it for their children.
Valuing Children As Children
The importance of a Jewish preschool for Jewish continuity notwithstanding, Greenberg notes a difference in the way Judaism sees children, and how that frames the way Chabad educators interact with them.
“In most education systems you hear ‘our children are our future’ and ‘we need to give them skills for when they grow’. Judaism sees children as important in the stage that they are in right now. Their mitzvot and actions matter today and what they give to society right now, matters.”
Her views, as those of her colleagues, are informed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe who, she explains, saw the innate value and unique strength of Jewish children, insisting that it is never too early to begin educating them. It’s a perspective that has gained momentum in the wider educational community over the past decade with numerous studies pointing to the dramatic long-term benefits of an early childhood education.
The idea has even begun to inform national policy, as the White House recently announced new preschool initiatives, stating on its website that “Research has shown that the early years in a child’s life —when the human brain is forming—represent a critically important window of opportunity to develop a child’s full potential and shape key academic, social, and cognitive skills that determine a child’s success in school and in life.”
Devora Krasnianski, director of the Chabad Early Childhood Education (CECE) Network, in Brooklyn, New York, sees the Jewish preschool experience as potentially having “a tremendous influence on the child’s identity as a Jew. It’s at the age when they are forming their own identity that we should be instilling in them the important values and morals of our people.
“For many years, singles or married couples may not be involved in Jewish life, but when they become parents they begin to make big decisions on how Jewish they want to raise their families and suddenly they seek out meaningful experiences to bring Judaism to their children.”
When Karen Gilden, a 17-year veteran public school teacher from greater Portland, Oregon, was looking for a preschool for her two children she chose Chabad for its Jewish curriculum. The low student-teacher ratio and the talented staff factored into her choice of school as well.
Impressed with the program, she says that she wanted “to provide a Jewish education for my kids so when they go into a public school system, or another school system, I want them to already have a strength in their identity, so not only will they not mind being Jewish, but they will have a confidence in their Judaism.”
Chabad preschool directors are constantly in pursuit of best practices and thoughtfully adopt new philosophies that really work with the child in mind. Progressive educational techniques such as Montessori or Reggio Emilia shape the programs of many Jewish preschools.
In Vancouver, Greenberg’s school follows the Reggio Emilia approach that sees the environment as the third teacher, with children’s interest advising the curriculum.
“We thought it was the closest to the Jewish philosophy of ‘Teach your child, according to his way.’ So we teach the children what they want to know and learn. They aren’t being fed information, they are encouraged to explore and discover and take action,” Greenberg explains. “We are big believers in place-based education; that you can learn a lot from where you live. Our teachers set up things to provoke the children’s interests and we spend more time on the things the children get excited about.”
Themselves parents of large families, Chabad preschool directors bring their experience with multi-age children to the preschool. They are consistently noted for the loving environment they create, and their ability to employ teaching styles creatively, with flexibility to match the particular children and their communities, unique to each preschool. The parents, she says, value their expertise in early childhood development. “They have years of experience seeing how school in the younger years impacts the later years, and parents pick up on that.”
What does seem to be common to most Chabad preschools is the belief that Judaism must permeate every aspect of the day and be integrated into everything a child does. Thus, a morning meeting about the weather might lead to a discussion on the beauty of G-d’s world; a lesson about the science of beekeeping and honey will segue into a discussion about the sweetness apples dipped in honey for Rosh Hashanah; and a matching game for setting the table may include Shabbat oriented items like a Kiddush cup and Shabbat candlesticks.
“Pre-reading and pre-math skills are woven into the Jewish curriculum,” says Pearl Stroh, director of Chabad Early Learning Center of the Upper West Side in Manhattan, now in its 24th year. “It is important for children to have readiness skills for their continued education, but we also believe it is never too early for a Jewish education. You can take any unit and you can teach literacy, math, science, social skills—pretty much everything—through that unit. We do it through Judaism, learning about the Jewish year and Jewish values like charity and friendship.”
Partnering With Stanford’s Bing Nursery School
Many Chabad preschools have become so popular, availability is oftentimes limited. Chai Preschool in San Mateo has over 60 students, with a long waiting list of hopefuls. The preschool has become a hallmark of excellence in the community and director Esty Marcus has even partnered with the nationally acclaimed Bing Nursery School at Stanford University.
“We went to Bing because we are looking for excellence in education and their school had a lot of components that we really admired,” Marcus says. “They emphasized critical thinking, specific language and the understanding of abstract concepts, which was very exciting for us. We also loved how their teachers respected the students and there was a very calm feeling in the room.”
With help from Bing’s educational advisors Chai embraced a philosophy of higher level thinking and changed their curriculum. While many preschools are play-based, Marcus notes that “we have taken it to the next level. Our explorations now are more organic, and come from the children’s interests. We have seen our students become more adept, more sophisticated in their learning, able to grow and make discoveries on their own.”
Reflecting the Jewish value of mindfulness in all of our actions, Esty points out that “With our current curriculum, every child is engaged and acts with intentionality.” She has watched the children as they learn to be critical thinkers. “They have a growth mindset—they are not afraid of failure and become resilient. As teachers we hear them say ‘it’s ok to make a mistake’, ‘I can figure this out on my own’ and ‘this is tricky, I wonder how I can do this’. That language is so important for their development.”
Cindy Zedeck, another Chai Preschool parent, says that she was specifically looking for a preschool that would teach her son to share, to voice his opinion and to think through difficult situations. Chai prepared him for kindergarten so that he now feels confident, she says, in his interactions with other kids. “In preschool he was given great tools of communication, on how to share and how to handle conflict. He has learned to be kind and respectful—and even discusses it when he comes home. Chai really gave him a great value system and completely prepared him for kindergarten.”
Having a Chabad-run early childhood center in a Jewish community does more than just mold the minds of its youngest members, it also builds bridges to local families with parent participation in family Shabbat dinners, parent-run organizations and reading in the classrooms.
“As educators we are concerned with the whole child and that includes the whole family, because the child is not developing in a vacuum, he or she is also developing the context of their family,” says Krasnianski.
The preschool setting also gives young Jewish families the chance to engage Jewishly with their peers and act as an opportunity for young families to orient themselves to living Jewish lives. Jessica Plitt says that in her Northern California town, the majority of her Jewish friends are now other parents in her children’s preschool.
“The bonds we created with our fellow preschool parents are so strong, they are our best friends.” Plitt says. “My husband’s not from here originally, so these are our social circles now. We’ve brought in at least three families into our synagogue and created our own Jewish community. We get excited to go to our kids’ friends birthday parties because that means we get to see our friends as well.”
Preschool options are often the first consideration for parents when relocating to a new town. In recent years, Chabad has focused on opening and growing its network of early childhood centers. With so many in North America alone and growing, and with scholarship opportunities making them affordable, a desirable Jewish preschool education is now easier to come by. Even unaffiliated parents seem to recognize, says Krasinianski, the value of sending their children to a Jewish preschool where, “if they will experience Judaism in a loving context, associated with warmth and a sense of family, they will continue to turn to it for the rest of their lives.”