early engagement

early engagement

Two pre-school girls looking through magnifying glasses at objects on a table

You’re motivated to engage families with young children. Where can you find information about their interests, needs, ideas about meaningful Jewish experiences, and more?

Jennie Nerenberg
Preschool children sitting on the floor

Here's how one Chicago-land congregation successfully deepened its engagement with families with young children.

Fern Katz and Rabbi Seth Limmer

Jacqueline and Kevin Haney of North Caldwell wanted to send their children to a Jewish preschool, so last summer they took a look at the

Johanna Ginsberg (NJJN)

We’re working to create a shared vision for excellence in early childhood Jewish education and to ensure our ECE centers will thrive in the future. For the past two years, we have worked as part of a team in the greater Denver/ Boulder Jewish community to enhance our early childhood education centers.

Cathy Rolland and Mark Horowitz

The Reform Movement is deeply commited to early childhood education, with congregations operating pre-schools of all types – formal, informal, full-time, part-time, and more – in an effort to engag

Cathy Rolland

by Rachel Stein

As a former preschool teacher and director, I was enjoying my role as a parent and lay leader on the “other side” in our preschool at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, IL. As my two boys happily made their way through our small preschool, I chaired the parent committee and volunteered on our early childhood task force, which explored ways to expand the school and reach target families, many of whom were sending children to other area programs.

“Sooner. Stronger. Deeper. Longer.” That’s the motto that guides Nancy Bossov through her work as an early childhood education and engagement professional. Now the director of early childhood education at Temple Israel in New Rochelle, N.Y., Nancy came up with this motto while serving as the director of early childhood education at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York. In practice, it means that engaging families in congregational life sooner rather than later fosters stronger connections to the congregation. This leads to a deeper experience for members, which translates into longer member-synagogue relationships.

Almost all synagogue leaders are concerned with their congregations’ membership numbers, and those same leaders report drastic drop-off rates for families whose children have completed their formal religious education. Although there isn’t a magical cure-all for membership retention, early engagement has proven to be a successful tactic.

Knowing this, the URJ gathered leaders from 28 congregations to participate in two early childhood-related Communities of Practice, Successfully Engaging Families with Young Children and Pursuing Excellence in Your Early Childhood Center. For 18 months, these leaders explored strategies and programs for achieving that “sooner, stronger, deeper, longer” member connection.

Is your congregation ready to learn and innovate? Are you prepared to grapple with challenging but important issues and questions, but aren’t quite sure where to begin?

The URJ is thrilled to announce that applications are now open for the URJ Communities of Practice, and we invite your congregation to apply. Communities of Practice (CoPs) are an opportunity for your congregation to come together with others around a topic of shared interest. For 18-24 months, participating congregations will learn from experts in the field, ask big questions, share ideas and best practices, apply these lessons through experimentation, and as a result, strengthen their communities.

We have been so inspired by stories we’ve heard from synagogues across North America that have been transformed by their involvement in past CoPs. One such story comes from Congregation Shir Ami in Castro Valley, CA, a small congregation that realized it was uniquely positioned to fill the needs of young, unaffiliated families seeking a Jewish community. As they worked to support these families, the congregation expanded in membership and in self-identity. Read more of their powerful story.

By Harriet Skelly

In 2013, Congregation Shir Ami in Castro Valley, CA, was at its lowest membership in 15 years. Several years earlier, we had implemented a new, low-cost dues structure in the hopes that it would help increase the membership. At about the same time, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, visited the Bay Area and spoke with local congregational presidents about audacious hospitality, relational Judaism, and “going outside the walls.” I was intrigued by his language, but still didn’t really get it. I was just stuck on how to find unaffiliated Jews in our area to bring into our congregation.

by Marilyn E. Gootman

Congregation Children of Israel is a 150-family congregation in Athens, GA. As a small congregation, we were looking for creative ways to welcome and engage families with young children, one of our target membership demographics. The answer came in the form of PJ Library®, which enables us to offer book subscriptions to local families raising Jewish children ages six months to 8 years.

Our congregation joined the program in 2007, and it has been a huge success. The fact that we could now offer something to families with young children at no charge and with no strings attached proved to be an offer too good to refuse. Within a year and a half, our young family memberships grew by 66%, and ever since, young families have consistently represented a sizable percentage of our new members. At the same time, community members have grown to appreciate our success in engaging young families, and “PJ parents” have gone on to become congregational leaders, improving the overall congregational attitude toward young families.

Of course, joining the initiative didn’t come without challenges. The first was obtaining financial support to fund our congregation’s participation. As the synagogue’s PJ Library® coordinator, I approached congregants, non-members, the sisterhood, and the rabbi for donations; the Harold Grinspoon Foundation matched the funds we received. Although fundraising is still an ongoing challenge, it has gotten easier since our congregation received a PJ Library®-URJ-WRJ Partnership Grant – but more on that later.