It’s Circle Time in Debra Katz Klein’s classroom.
“Okey-dokey, artichokies,” the preschool teacher croons. “Find a spot on the rug.”
The 4-year-olds drop their wooden blocks, crayons and puzzles and flutter to the worn blue carpet that is duct-taped to the linoleum. Katz Klein looks larger than life on a child-sized stool she’s chosen for a seat. She pulls out a picture book and surveys the semicircle around her.
“Be sure that Ben Zoma is sitting next to you helping you to be strong,” she says, referring to a Jewish sage.
But the children at T’enna Preschool at the Albert L. Shultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto do not flex their biceps. They do not drop and give their teacher 20.
Instead, they look around at their peers, sit up straight and stop chattering.
Being strong in this classroom — and dozens of others around the Bay Area — has nothing to do with physical strength. In this classroom, strength means exercising self-control and treating others with respect.
Children are learning this through a new national curriculum called Ethical Start, which is reframing the way JCC educators teach values to preschool children.
The multimedia curriculum — which includes books, posters, stickers, original songs and a doll named Peer K. Explorer — hinges on the lessons of Pirkei Avot, commonly known as “Ethics of Our Fathers.” It is one of the 63 tractates of the Mishnah, which discusses Jewish law in all areas of life. Pirkei Avot is the only one devoted to Jewish morals and ethics.
The heady text has been massaged into picture books and songs that are appropriate for preschoolers, allowing young students to understand universal values in a distinctly Jewish way.
Tamar Foster, preschool director at the Osher Marin JCC, which is also using Ethical Start, said that at the beginning of the year, she asked students what being strong meant to them. All held up their arms and made a muscle.
“And now, they might tell you being strong means using strong words,” she said. “The children get that there’s this internal strength.”
Across the Bay Area, children who haven’t yet learned how to tie their sneakers are now learning Mishnah.
It’s hard to believe — even teachers are often skeptical when they learn that Ethical Start teaches values through ancient Jewish wisdom.
“I was wondering myself how we’d approach this with 3-year-olds, because it’s sort of heavy stuff,” said Judy Garb, director of the preschool at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City.
But the curriculum is stocked with child-friendly components, such as a doll who’s an explorer and looks for meaning in things, Garb noted. It also comes with books, posters and “plenty of ideas that make for teachable moments.”
Ethical Start is a loose curriculum; teachers don’t schedule an hour every morning for “Ethical Start time.” Through picture books and songs, the program provides a framework and language with which to integrate Jewish living into the daily lives of preschoolers and their families.
For instance, one morning at the Albert L. Shultz JCC, a boy in a silkscreen T-shirt started fidgeting in his chair. He stood up, turned away from the teacher and started looking at the wood blocks on the table behind him.
Instead of telling him “no,” the teacher got his attention and asked: “Alan, who is strong?” The 3-year-old sheepishly answered, “The one who controls himself.” And he sat back down, attentive.
“Ethical Start has really become the lingua franca, even on the playground,” said Zvi Weiss, director of T’enna Preschool.
Another important piece of the curriculum, teachers say, is parent involvement.
The program requires JCC preschools to organize parent trainings a few times a year, so parents can reinforce the lessons their children learn at school. In exchange, they receive copies of Ethical Start books and a CD of 16 original songs — jazzy, Broadway-style tunes that adults can enjoy, too.
Casey Colowick of Menlo Park said she’s been pleasantly surprised with how her son and daughter have embraced the lessons of Ethical Start at the Albert L. Shultz JCC.
One day she picked up her son from school and he whined about wanting something.
“So I said, ‘Try to hold it together,’ and he’s like, ‘OK, I’m trying to be strong,'” she recalled. “I’m not sure he got that it was a Jewish sage who said this, but he certainly got the point of the lesson.”
Colowick said she’s come to believe that kids can absorb “much more than we give them credit for,” and is pleased that her children are being introduced to big Jewish ideas.
“As a parent, I have two wishes for my kids,” she said. “One is for them to be happy people, and the other is for them to be good people, so knowing they’re in a preschool where they seem happy and are learning how to be good is comforting for me.”
Ethical Start was created by Ruth Pickenson Feldman, director of early childhood services for the JCC Association. She wanted to change the way preschoolers engage with Jewish ideas, and asked herself, “If preschool is the entry point into the Jewish community, what are we inviting them into?”
She was frustrated that Jewish preschools — increasingly recognized as a doorway into the Jewish community for the entire family — often focused on the customs, rituals and holidays of Judaism, or what she called “pediatric Judaism.” For instance, she said, frying latkes is fun, but not an activity that provides depth for further discussion, nor is it a doorway into conversation between parent and child.
“Judaism has a deep tradition of how we behave toward each other and how we live every day. It is not just a string of holidays,” she said. “It’s very deeply rooted in Torah and sacred texts, which teach us how to live our lives. So I thought: Could we learn to teach that in Jewish early childhood education?”
Thanks to a grant from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, in 1999 Feldman began working on developing a curriculum that would “empower parents, teachers and children as Jewish learners.”
The program was ready in 2001 and began as a pilot in six preschools. Right now it is only available for use in JCC preschools; 65 JCCs in North America are using Ethical Start. Four in the Bay Area have adopted the curriculum, including the Peninsula JCC in Foster City and Contra Costa JCC in Walnut Creek. The Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos plans to implement the program next year.
Adopting the curriculum requires teachers to spend time studying and discussing the Midrash, and attend Ethical Start trainings.
The program costs about $2,500 per classroom, though that varies depending on how much time preschools set aside for teacher training (which requires the additional cost of paying substitute teachers) and how many supplemental materials the school purchases for classroom and home use.
Teachers and preschool directors say the costs are worthwhile. They believe Ethical Start inspires Jewish values to become part of the school culture, helping children learn how to treat one another and, ideally, how to make responsible decisions throughout their lives, Garb said.
“This really has the potential to change the culture of how we raise Jewish children.”