Sometimes an outsider’s perspective yields a beautiful question.
Susan Zukrow Mackevich, z"l, whose second Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism (ECE-RJ), and Chicago-area early childhood Jewish educators.was April 27, provided that kind of perspective for us at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ),
Susan served as director of marketing for the Chicago Tribune for 15 years. When she joined our team in 2014, she asked important questions that highlighted gaps in our landscape, creating the space to explore the need for connection between Jewish early childhood centers and congregations, between congregations and families with young children, and between families with young children and camp.
Susan started a second career in the Jewish world as project director of the Chicago Early Engagement Leadership Initiative (CEELI), funded by the Crown Family Philanthropies and an anonymous donor. CEELI utilized a holistic, integrative approach which recognized that Jewish Early Childhood Centers must demonstrate excellence in compelling ways to remain competitive and relevant. She immediately started asking key questions, including challenging silos between Jewish camping and early childhood Jewish centers in the region.
A passionate leader and ambassador of the Reform Movement, and a booster of URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Institute (OSRUI) in Oconomowoc, WI, Susan threw herself into running CEELI. Susan highlighted the importance of early childhood education to families and communities and built a cohort of professionals and lay leaders across the Jewish landscape. The more she came to love the job, the more she kept asking why the URJ’s camp programming and early childhood centers were separate.
Susan’s instincts were strong: a vast trove of research shows that exposure to a combination of Jewish education, overnight camps with Jewish content, youth group involvement, and travel to Israel produces adults who are most likely to become active participants, if not leaders, in their Jewish communities. It’s important to note, however, that when young children are enrolled in Jewish early childhood programs and day camps, they enter portals that lead to deeper forms of Jewish engagement. Studies also suggest positive effects of part-time Jewish education when combined with informal Jewish education.
The silos between camp and early childhood programs were never absolute. However, Susan was hitting on something important. Early childhood educators have a lot to offer the world of camp, especially those who work with the younger end of the age spectrum. Many people associate early childhood education only with the youngest children — ages two, three and four — who are served in synagogue preschools. However, as a professional field, early childhood education often runs up to age seven or eight — which also happens to be the age of the youngest sleepover campers. Early childhood educators are masters at engagement, a skill that will serve young campers and the staff who work with them.
We knew that Susan’s questions were important, which is why when Susan died, we realized that a wonderful way to honor her would be to uplift the work of a stellar Jewish early childhood educator, bringing that person to the faculty at a URJ camp, and providing the opportunity for Jewish early childhood education to have an impact on the camp ecosystem.
The Susan Zukrow Mackevich Seeds of Compassion Fellowship will start realizing Susan’s vision of additional closeness between the camp and early childhood communities that serve families with young children from all denominations of Jewish life.
We are proud to announce Susie Wexler, director of the Chava Center Early Childhood Program at Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, IL, as the inaugural fellow. She will serve on the faculty at OSRUI for one week during the upcoming summer 2022 session. During her time at camp, Susie will facilitate training and transitions for our staff before they begin working with our youngest overnight campers. She will also be part of the team creating and implementing Jewish learning and engagement that is optimized for this young group of campers. Prior to camp, she will work with the staff of our pre-camper program, Chaverim, to shape and create programming for the youngest day-campers.
Susie will help camp staff, who are already experts in working with older children, sharpen their professional instincts when it comes to the youngest campers. Developmentally, these children perceive the world and communicate about it in a very different way from their older peers. Susie will be on hand to elucidate the ways in which younger children have distinct needs and create unique opportunities for their education.
We can’t wait to welcome Susie to OSRUI, where her presence will help further break down any remaining silos between early childhood education and camp, and where her expertise will provide a different perspective to the seasoned camp educators on staff. Both Jewish early childhood programs and Jewish camps are crucial to our future, as they have the privilege of shaping how young learners understand the world and act in it. We hope to see the integration of early childhood education and camp that we are modeling at URJ-OSRUI spread across our Jewish world, as multiple perspectives enrich one another.