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Directing a Jewish early childhood education center can be a stressful and lonely experience, balanced by regular hugs and greetings, and occasional (some might say “miraculous”) understanding among the infant to 5-year-old children in our centers.
Staff members in the 240 early childhood centers that are part of Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) congregations have opportunities to reach across the continent to exchange ideas and experiences with colleagues, helping each other move toward innovation, efficiency, creativity, and greatness.
In the fall of 2016, the URJ provided congregations an opportunity to benefit from the power of our network: Thirteen congregations from across North America joined the URJ Full-Time Early Education Community of Practice (CoP) to learn, experiment, and network together for 18 months. Each congregation had or was planning to have a Jewish full-time early childhood education program and each one created a leadership team, comprising early childhood educators, clergy, board members, parents, teachers, and religious school directors.
Together, participants examined the ever-growing need for and potential of full-time early childhood education within the landscape of a Reform congregation. We recognized the monumental need – and responsibility – to focus on the needs of dual-working parents and their families, as well as on the young children who spend between 40 and 60 hours each week in the temple.
Then we acted!
Through this CoP, we learned valuable lessons, which are applicable to any congregation with a part-time or full-time early childhood center. These are the four biggest takeaways.
Our participants embraced new ways to measure congregational success. By experimenting, we learned that congregational communities offer families the greatest value when relationships are emphasized. We also learned that when parents’ time is focused on meaningful content, they feel valued and see the congregation as a place where they can find meaning. Focusing on relationships and meaning creates a positive impact on families’ lives.
Relationships, meaning, and impact therefore became the measures by which many of our CoP congregations planned, facilitated, and evaluated their offerings. A successful program is not one that simply has many families in attendance, but one in which parents exchange contact information with other parents, have meaningful conversations with the religious school director, or play Jewish geography with one of the clergy, only to discover a mutual friend from their college days.
In Pirkei Avot 1:6 (Teachings of Our Ancestors), our tradition implores us to “Find yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person on the positive side.”
It’s important for congregational leaders to understand the early childhood center as part of – not apart from – the congregation. Likewise, the early childhood center should view and market the congregation as a nurturing parent with warm, welcoming arms. When “we” includes all the programs and offerings of the congregation, parents can see themselves in various roles in the future, the leadership views parents as “us” rather than “the young people,” and planning and budgeting reflect the relationships and continuity of the generations.
This holistic approach is possible only when a sacred partnership exists among leaders – that is, when the professional and lay leaders of the early childhood center and the congregation at large work as a team. Although we may not use the term “team” regularly in our congregations or centers, leaders who function together as a team work in tandem – regardless of their individual roles and responsibilities – toward a shared goal.
Being part of a whole took on additional meaning for CoP participants, who had opportunities to compare notes, offer support to counterparts in other communities, and share insights, ideas, and experiences. This common ground and comradery promoted growth and experimentation.
When leaders of early education centers work in sacred partnership with the rest of the congregation’s leadership – focusing on relationships, meaning, and impact – lines begin to fade. Clergy interactions with children, parents, grandparents, and teachers in the early childhood center, don’t always have to be as leaders or teachers. Similarly, early education staff shouldn’t approach clergy only with questions about Torah, but also should engage them in conversations about relationship-building.
If relationships are the focus, it’s important for a cantor to play catch with 5-year-olds and for an executive director to schmooze with parents over coffee at drop-off time because such interactions create strong communal bonds. When a rabbi sends a quick, middle-of-the-day message to a parent about the big smile on their baby’s face, that parent feels special and connected. These acts solidify connections and help a community grow.
In a household in which both parents work full-time, a full-time early childhood program is essential. Congregational full-time early childhood centers provide families with necessary child care and connect them to a thriving community and network of lifelong friends. That said, this superior offering can go unnoticed if its value isn’t communicated to parents in our fast-paced, high-tech world.
The CoP experience exposed participants to valuable marketing techniques used in other fields. As a result, one congregational team improved its branding with simple changes like adding logos, links, and contact information to all congregational leaders’ email signatures. Another revamped its website so the language for mission statements and program descriptions is consistent throughout the site, creating a clear congregation-wide message.
Although these lessons were gleaned from work in congregational early childhood centers, many of them apply to work throughout the congregation. They can help congregations create and grow emotional, social, and spiritual connections with families who are in the community every day and view the early education center as a second home.
To join the conversation, visit the Families with Young Children group in The Tent.
To learn how these lessons helped one congregation create successful transformational change, read the story.