Preschool teachers show our children Jewish values time to return the favor

In 1992, I received the first Professional of the Year award from the Jewish Community Federation. I was honored for my work in early childhood and family education at Santa Rosa’s Congregation Beth Ami and its community nursery school.

I told the story of Bubbe Helen, who would have been 100 this June. It went like this: One day, Bubbe Helen took her 4-year-old great-niece out to lunch. Little Rachel needed to go to the restroom. As they entered the stall, Rachel spied a double roll of toilet paper and cheerfully asked, “What’s a Torah doing in here?”

Evidently Rachel had been making her own little Torah scroll at preschool, complete with googly eyes and lots of glitter.

 Fast-forward to our world of Jewish early childhood education in 2015. Our thoughtful teachers ask children what they know about a Torah scroll. They invite a sofer, a scribe, to show them quills, ink and a real Torah. And they create meaningful projects as a class community, writing English and Hebrew letters, and Jewish stories. They tap into their students’ passion for superhero play, exploring the attributes of their favorite heroes and identifying which of these attributes will help us to do mitzvot.

Jewish gardens and outdoor classrooms blossom at many of our centers. Teachers and other specialists plant pomegranates, figs and grapes, and they grow herbs for Havdallah. And in thoughtful staff meetings, teachers and directors don’t debate storage space; they discuss pedagogy, methodology and children’s learning. Professional development includes sessions on inclusion of all children, making learning visible and understanding the Jewish values of the early childhood program.

I often quote educator Parker Palmer, who wrote: “The question we most commonly ask is the ‘what’ question — what subjects shall we teach?

“When the conversation goes a bit deeper, we ask the ‘how’ question — what methods and techniques are required to teach well?

“Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the ‘why’ question, for what purpose and to what ends do we teach?

“But seldom, if ever, do we ask the ‘who’ question — who is the self that teaches? How does the quality of my selfhood form, or deform the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world?

“How can educational institutions sustain and deepen the selfhood from which good teaching comes? We teach who we are?”

It has been my goal for each of my 19 years at the Bureau of Jewish Education, now called Jewish LearningWorks, to visit as many of our 19 early childhood programs in the region we serve as possible, to see the teachers and directors where they are, and to learn who they are.

While I believe we are steadily improving in the work we do with children, I urge our colleagues and our leadership, our clergy and our community to work toward improving our adult relationships — to show kavod, honor and dignity, to every teacher and director in our schools. We must make the Jewish values of our institutions visible in every conversation, interview, evaluation and even exit interviews between employees and employers.

Our relationships are kadosh, holy. Our task is to become close observers not only of children and their learning, but of adults and our own learning. These relationships and Jewish values must be made apparent in every early childhood Jewish program and institution in the Bay Area.

We must continue to make Jewish preschools great by raising salaries and making schools affordable. If we really want to make our preschools great, we must provide high-quality general and Jewish professional development, integrating solid knowledge of child development, pedagogy and adult learning, and reinstituting trips to Israel for early childhood teachers and directors. These are critical steps that our community must take.

During this period of reflection around my retirement from Jewish LearningWorks, I think of the many brachot, or blessings, I’ve been able to experience as a member of and a professional in our Bay Area Jewish community.

I thank my teacher Vicky Kelman, who invited me to become part of the Jewish Family Education Project at the BJE in 1996. I thank Janet Harris and Denise Moyes Schnur, who encouraged me to take on the professional development series Jewish Everyday Moments in School in 2002 and Focus on Excellence in 2008. I am grateful to all of our funders, including the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Jewish Community Federation. I thank the Jewish Community Library and the teachers, directors, rabbis, librarians, staff and parents of all the schools I’ve worked with. And I thank the current and former staff of Jewish LearningWorks. It’s been a pleasure to work with you to reach, teach and ignite a passion for Jewish learning in every learner, especially our youngest.

Ellen Brosbe retired this month after a 30-year career in early childhood Jewish education, most recently as director of early childhood education at Jewish LearningWorks.