Shoshana Edelstein blows a shofar with help from Emma Schnur. Shoshana attends Gan Avraham Preschool at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, a participant in the Federation’s Jewish Resource Specialists program. (Photo/Rachel Regan)
Shoshana Edelstein blows a shofar with help from Emma Schnur. Shoshana attends Gan Avraham Preschool at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, a participant in the Federation’s Jewish Resource Specialists program. (Photo/Rachel Regan)

Millions in grant money helps elevate Jewish preschool education

How much money does it take to change the landscape of early childhood Jewish education in the Bay Area? A $3.3 million long-term investment by the S.F.-based Jim Joseph Foundation, in partnership with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, might be doing the trick.

Now in their seventh year, the grants are funding myriad programs, including Jewish Resource Specialists (a program of the S.F.-based Federation), development training for selected JCC and synagogue early childhood educators, independent mentoring and coaching, retreats and a seminar on Israel.

Is it working? Organizers say yes. To wit, an independent evaluation of the JRS program revealed several positive findings, such as greater parent-family participation in Jewish community life, the integration of Jewish content into secular families, and new opportunities for teachers to explore Jewish early childhood education as a career path. The report was released in January.

“We see success after success of teachers infusing deeper learning for children, teachers and parents,” said Seth Linden, a program officer at Jim Joseph who oversees what is officially called the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative. “It’s a triple whammy.”

The pilot program launched in 2011 with three-year cohorts at five Bay Area sites; a second cohort, at 10 sites, followed in 2014.

A third cohort began in 2017 at eight sites: the JCC of San Francisco, South Peninsula Hebrew Day School (Sunnyvale), Peninsula JCC preschool (Foster City), and synagogue preschools at Temple Beth Abraham and Beth Jacob Congregation (Oakland), Congregation Beth Sholom (S.F.) and Peninsula Temple Beth El (San Mateo).

“Even though some schools had an excellent approach to the secular curriculum, the Jewish curriculum was not following suit,” pointed out Janet Harris, director of the Federation’s Early Childhood and Family Engagement Initiative. “A decade ago, Jewish educators knew about the Jewish curriculum. [But in recent years] we were finding fewer educators who are Jewish and going into early childhood education.”

To chip away at that problem, the Jewish Resource Specialists program shifts away from a traditional teacher-centered classroom to an approach that involves collaboration among children, teachers and parents.

For example, at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, a recent Passover program for young students went beyond a teacher simply reading stories about slaves, plagues and parting seas. Here, the children made costumes and straw bricks, and were treated to a mock seder with a variety of interactive stations. One was a haroset bar (with Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Persian recipes) at which the kids prepared their own creations, put them in a jar and affixed a “Made in Egypt” sticker.

Jodi Gladstone, the early childhood education director at Beth El, said being a participant in the Jewish Resource Specialists program was key.

“Schools with a [Jewish Resource Specialist] influence a greater community, because we are digging deeper into Judaism and what we’re bringing to children and families,” Gladstone said. “It’s more meaningful. We’re building bonds with our children, and making relationships with children and parents as a community.”

Parents play a key role, as well.

Alison Poggi León of Belmont said the special programming brought “a sense of intention and consistency to Jewish learning” at the preschool run by Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame.

“The JRS program allowed us to give extra education to teachers around values and themes,” said the mother of 5-year-old Maya, a “graduate” of the PTS preschool. “Events outside of the core preschool events brought the community together. It seeded what was possible for the future and set the stage for what’s to come.”

Gladstone said the JRS program is helping establish Jewish identity at a young age.

“If students feel connected to Judaism,” she said, “they will have a memory that will follow them into old age.”

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.