Blogcast 5: Pathway to Engagement? The Promise of Jewish Early Childhood Education


August 05, 2015

In this Blogcast, a researcher, practitioner, and funder participated in a conversation about how Jewish Early Childhood Education serves as a “gateway” into broader Jewish community engagement and education.


  • Wendy Rosov, Rosov Consulting
  • Chaya Gorsetman, Yeshiva University
  • Cathy Rolland, Union for Reform Judaism
  • Debbi Cooper, Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago




Wendy Rosov
We’re very excited to be engaging a great cast this week in a discussion about Jewish early childhood education.

Some evaluation research in this sector points to the promise of quality Jewish ECE initiatives to promote engagement of low and marginally-affiliated families with the Jewish community (for example: the 2002 study of preschools in Baltimore, Chicago and Denver, the 2006 Map of the Field of Jewish ECE in Denver and Boulder, the 2014 program evaluation of the Jewish Resource Specialist program in the Bay Area which was part of a larger initiative called ECEI, and the 2013 program evaluation of the Joyfully Jewish initiative in Chicago).

This is a good start, but we need more systematic and robust study to make claims about what works, for whom, and how — and, more importantly, to bring improvements to practice and philanthropic investment.

So, I would like to kick off the conversation with a framing question: From where you sit and based on your experience in the field, in what ways, and to what extent, is Jewish ECE serving as a gateway into broader and deeper Jewish engagement and/or education, particularly among those who enter the system 'less engaged, connected or involved'? What would we need to know in order to determine how could Jewish ECE facilitate this kind of engagement role more effectively?

Debbi Cooper
We have solid research to substantiate that families with young children are actively looking for friendships, support, information and connection to community at this stage in their lives. And it pays for the Jewish community to be there for families – when they are creating patterns, setting routines and building relationships with families and institutions – many of which will last and influence the choices they will be making throughout their lives.

Yet the extent to which we are successful in “hooking” them depends a lot on our intent and execution while they are in our early childhood programs and the offerings we have for families when they transition out.

First, I can think of 5 ways – I’m sure there are others - in which ECE serves as a gateway to broader engagement:

Through age appropriate and joy-filled Jewish learning that goes on in the classroom that prompts children to go home and open a conversation about G-d or mitzvot or to use the ritual object they made in the classroom. It is not at all surprising to me that one of the most frequently cited outcomes of ECE programs is that families are celebrating Shabbat or holidays in a new or enhanced way. In my home, our observance of Shabbat increased from a monthly or “whenever it was convenient” approach to a weekly one as our then 4-year old came home one Friday and said “Mommy, Shabbat is actually every week” followed up with “So….aren’t we going to do it tonight?” It was clear that Shabbat had become meaningful and joyful to him….and he wanted to continue to share it with us. What parent can say no to that?!

The extent to which the ECE Director and teachers see it as part of their jobs to encourage social connections and build community among parents. This can be a challenge, particularly in full day programs when parents are often rushing to drop-off to get to work and pick up after a long day, but perhaps even more important that these relationships are forged, so families feel supported and connected during these early years. We know that the number of Jewish friends correlates with Jewish choices families make later on – but this requires community building to be as central to the school’s mission as what is happening in the classrooms. (As an aside, the “sense of community” is often what we often hear as a distinguishing feature of Jewish preschools – we need to be great at this…and market it. It we are looking for a competitive edge in the ever crowded early childhood market, this is one area we can absolutely win.)

The extent to which Directors and other organizational leadership identify themselves and make themselves available as (Jewish) role models for parents and children. Are Directors welcoming parents in the lobby each morning during drop off? Are they available for advice and consultation on parenting issues? Do rabbis or other Jewish leaders invite school families regularly for coffee, as Shabbat guests or attend preschool graduation ceremonies? For some families, being in an ECE program is the first time they’ve had exposure and access to Jewish leadership – what are we doing to maximize that opportunity?

The way that schools actively encourage and invite participation in the larger community – whether it be a synagogue, community center or broader Jewish community at large. I loved hearing that two synagogue-based EC centers in Chicago recently voted to extend synagogue membership to all EC families. To do this right, individual ECE centers must be able to see that any ongoing connection to the Jewish community is a “win” – and actively market the offerings of other Jewish organizations’ activities to their families.

The way we help families connect to the next step when they leave our schools. How well are day schools, congregational schools, Jewish camps, etc. marketed to preschool families? Who is taking responsibility for making sure these families stay in the pipeline? The community at large has a role to play here. Locally, participation in community wide programs such as PJ Library, JUF Right Start and others, families remain connected to the broader Jewish community which can help them learn about and transition to next steps.

In terms of what we’d need to know to facilitate this engagement better – we need to stay on top of both the demand and supply sides of the equation. What are families looking for as they age out of our ECE programs, and in particular, how can Judaism and the Jewish community play a role in meeting these needs? Secondly, what exists in our communities – or needs to be created - that matches up with their needs and interests? And what barriers need to be addressed to make sure families can access these offerings? Time and time again, I think we have seen that the interest among families in connecting with the Jewish community is strong. But a close look at our offerings – ensuring they are high quality, accessible, welcoming, relevant and integrated with the ways families are living their everyday lives – is key to ensuring that they want to stay connected. The how to keep them connected becomes much easier when the offerings themselves are attractive, relevant, meaningful and accessible.

sdickstein  Added by:CASJE
First I believe we need studies to help us understand more deeply what exactly Jewish engagement looks like for families whose children are enrolled in Jewish ECE. What is the impact that ECE currently has on parent/family engagement. Also, what is the Jewish engagement for parents and the child 5 years and 10 years after their JECE experience, and does it differ from those that did not send to a Jewish ECE?

I also believe we need to have a better picture nationally of what the efforts look like across the country to engage parents and families whose children are enrolled in Jewish ECCs and which of these efforts are having the most impact.

Wendy Rosov
Thanks to Shellie and Debbi for getting the ball rolling. I think that there is a connection between Debbi’s statement #2 about the extent to which the ECE Director and teachers see it as part of their jobs to encourage social connections and build community among parents and what Shellie mentions about needing studies that can tell us (much) more about what exactly Jewish engagement looks like for families enrolled. As Debbi rightly points out, we know from research that the number of Jewish friends and the “thickness of that network” correlates with Jewish choices families make later on – but/and, as Debbi says, this requires community building to be as central to the school’s mission as what is happening in the classrooms. This is where applied study can really help -- a comprehensive look at if/how ECE directors and, frankly, in the cases where there are lay boards governing these kinds of settings those folks as well, put forward, in a direct way, this community building aspect of their mission. What are the challenges and opportunities for doing “business” in this way? As Shellie asks – how could we engage in applied study that can help us understand what efforts are currently underway to “actively” engage parents and families whose children are enrolled and understand better and more fully what works for whom and under what circumstances?

Cathy M. Rolland
Greetings from Denver, where Mark Horowitz, Maxine Handelman and I are currently facilitating conversations with six leadership teams from URJ, USCJ and JCC’s communities participating in the BUILDing Jewish ECE initiative. BUILD is providing excellent opportunities for the Reform Movement, Conservative Movement and JCC Association, to lift up and closely examine the important ways that our early childhood professionals and the ECE’s they are directing, are serving as a gateway into broader and deeper Jewish engagement and/or education.

As my colleagues stated earlier, we have the research that supports the premise that preschool years are a critical time in the development of cognition, personality, and identity—including religious identity. We also know that when children enjoy Jewish learning and rituals at school, they bring them home and the family has these Jewish experiences together. The BUILD initiative is giving us opportunities to take a close and careful look at parents who are making their first Jewish educational choice, knowing these centers have the ability to propel parents on their lifelong Jewish journey, even those who are less engaged, connected and involved.

We are learning that we must be committed to ensuring that the educational quality of ECE centers is high, as it is a key factor in selecting an ECE program, and ultimately a synagogue and/or JCC. As Debi stated previously, the research confirms that Jewish Millennials and Gen Xers primarily choose our ECE’s because they seek a network of other Jewish parents with whom they can build community. The Jewish peer groups preschools create are predictive of future, deeper Jewish engagement for both parents and children.

We continue to learn to meet our families with young children where they are, not where we think they should be. When we "get it right" our families, particularly the “less engaged, connected and involved” appreciate the broader and deeper engagement and/or education, we offer.

As far as where more research is needed – The growing trend toward government funded/universal free pre-k programs, poses daunting challenges to the strength and well-being of many of our Jewish ECE’s throughout North America. Even the best ECE’s are at a severe disadvantage in competing with free publicly-funded programs. ECE’s are consistent feeders for engagement and membership. Government funding is leading to the weakening of our Pre-K programs and are having significant impact on the long term Jewish identify of many of our children, on families’ involvement in synagogue life and on the long-term sustainability of our Jewish communities. Research is needed on the impact this is having on our communities throughout North America, as there is a direct correlation as we examine how our ECE’s serve as a gateway into broader and deeper Jewish engagement.

Wendy Rosov
Thanks for writing, Cathy. The BUILD initiative sounds fascinating. And important. When you say that the initiative is providing opportunities for closely examining the ways that our ECE professionals and the centers themselves are serving as a gateway to engagement/education, what precisely do you mean? What kinds of applied study, if any, is the BUILD initiative planning to undertake in order to inform its work? What would you see as the most critical and constructive questions to ask that would indeed help you “closely examine” this phenomenon such that you’d be likely to yield usable knowledge to inform improved practice?

On that note, I wonder what you think about Shellie’s other comment about either longitudinal and/or “retrospective” study being a compelling and an important part of the research picture. What would investors in the sector do differently if they had an answer to Shellie’s question of “what is the Jewish engagement for parents and the child 5 years and 10 years after their JECE experience, and does it differ from those that did not send to a Jewish ECE?” What would practitioners do differently? Would love to hear your ideas on this as well as anyone else who is reading!

Lastly, your statement (hypothesis?) that Government funding is leading to the weakening of our Pre-K programs and, thus, likely to result in a negative impact on the long term Jewish identity of many of our children, on families’ involvement in synagogue life and on the long-term sustainability of our Jewish communities is provocative. I wonder - how could we mount a study that would help us understand if/how this may indeed be the case and, importantly, what we might do to mitigate these possible effects?

goodrl6060  Added by: CASJE
I realize I am coming into this conversation late. Here are some thoughts.

In terms of the concern of state supported early childhood and its impact on Jewish early childhood, I think we need to know more about how this trend actually works. In Florida, we know there are Jewish early childhood centers which are state supported to an extent. The Jewish ECE centers teach the state curriculum for part of the time and receive funding in return. We should examine how there can be a partnership with the state funding trend and the Jewish community. It would be important to know the reasons behind this too.

Many of the comments focused on families enrolled in Jewish ECE centers. Mark Rosen's research mentioned in Wendy's opening statement has actually challenged us to look "before" enrollment in ECE centers or membership in Jewish organizations, to look at families with children 0-2, a population which tends to be "undersubscribed" or "less subscribed" in Jewish ECE programs. In Chicago, as I imagine elsewhere there are efforts to connect these families with children 0-2 to other Jewish families and the Jewish community. We need to study these efforts, sharing models/approaches, culling the stories of participants, and assessing their impact on engagement. Let's not leave out the families with young children 3-5 who do not enroll their children in Jewish ECE in a conventional way. The Reform movement has more congregations without ECE centers than with. PJ Library is a huge "player" in this type of effort as is Interfaith There is much to be examined and learned about these families.

Ilene Vogelstein's 2002 study of the "state of Jewish ECE" established a baseline. Now we need to look at what is happening again holistically - enrollment, personnel, funding/cost, facilities. When the URJ did a study of Jewish education in congregations not so many years ago, 75% of the EC directors were 55 or over. Who are the personnel and where are they coming from?

One of the key questions I am constantly asking in the research I do, is what happens to the children and their families when they complete/age out of Jewish ECE? Do teachers and directors help families navigate Jewish life when they are enrolled in school and do they help them navigate it beyond Jewish ECE? We have so many families with young children, what are models of how to help them transition to the next steps? Where are the examples of effective collaborations between different Jewish communal institutions or even internally - e.g. from ECE to K religious/Hebrew school within a congregation?

Finally, what can we say about quality or excellence? I am intrigued by the work in Denver/Boulder looking at multiple elements in determining excellence in practice. As NAEYC struggles and more states develop their own standards, how are we setting standards of excellence? Mark Rosen's research, Michael Ben Avie's research all suggest excellence matters to parents. I am involved in the Pittsburgh JECEI effort striving for excellence. I know the JCCs are focused on satisfaction and promoter ratings which is one approach to determining what is excellent from the perspective of families. What are all the efforts out there? What can we learn from them about the importance of excellence for engaging families? what is needed to be excellent from the perspective of the families? what do the ECE centers consider to be key factors in excellence? what efforts are out there to guide the practitioners in the field?

Chaya Gorsetman, Ed.D
Definition of terms is essential to understand Jewish ECE and family engagement. What do we mean when we talk about engagement and how will families experience engagement? Said differently, what are the goals of the organization that is sponsoring the Jewish ECE program? For example, is it purely educational or social? Is it to build membership and promote observance, or is it simply to foster a sense of Jewish consciousness and awareness?

Depending upon the specific goals of the sponsoring organization, we can begin to have a conversation of the quality of those goals, how best to transmit them over a period of time and the manner in which we can judge our success in accomplishing them. It is at this point we can begin to develop a plan how best to effectuate meaningful and lasting engagement.

Whatever goals we decide upon, however, we still need to have teachers and school leaders that have a sufficient Jewish knowledge and an understanding of best practices in ECE to accomplish the engagement mission. Currently after a teacher receives an undergraduate or graduate degree in education, there are few Jewish continuing educational programs available to the practicing teacher or director. Prospectively it is imperative that we create programs for our ECE teachers and directors that enable coaching and mentoring and in general create ongoing professional development.

Much of the current research focuses on parental enrollment motivation. While more work can certainly be done in that area, I suspect that from a community prospective, our time and money might be better spent evaluating our schools and the teachers themselves, with a special emphasis on how engagement is fostered and what are the requirements, educational as well as social, of Jewish professionals to accomplish such engagement.

Accordingly Jewish ECE research could focus on how well our Jewish ECE teachers and directors are prepared for the task before them, what deficiencies need to be corrected and how best to improve our Jewish teaching community, which after all is the first line of engagement.

psandel  Added by: Wendy Rosov

As a head of a day school that sees itself as a next step for JECE families, I am wondering what is known about the economics of the Jewish educational system. There are many assumptions about why families might not choose day school. I am wondering what some type of applied study around this issue might yield for educational leaders like myself in these environments. I welcome anyone's thoughts.

sharonweiss  Added by: CASJE

Does treating JECE as the "gateway" towards long term Jewish education or integration into the Jewish community have it pitfalls? What is gained or lost in thinking about JECE in this way?

Debbi Cooper
It's an interesting question, Sharon - I'd like to hear more about what you're thinking. Certainly if treating ECE as a "gateway" is at the expense of full, rich experience unto itself, I think there is a loss there, but I don't think anyone would suggest that. Might the institution itself "lose" if they more widely publicize other offerings and not their own exclusively as "next steps"? I understand that mindset too....but ultimately I believe it needs to be approached from a community-wide perspective with confidence that people will find the *right* places for them and that if each institution is providing high quality, relevant programs that fills a niche in the marketplace, then the *right* people will find them too. Again, curious about your perspective.

boucharde  Added by: CASJE
I think treating JECE as the ONLY "gateway" may give families who enter the community at other times a sense that they're behind the curve or that they did something wrong. Also, for the religious school side, if they spend their time thinking only about where those children and families are in regards to knowledge and expectations, then they're missing out on reaching the students and families who start in 3rd or 4th grade (and beyond).

Wendy Rosov
Chaya’s statement that “definition of terms is essential to understand Jewish ECE and family engagement” is right on. Without such definitions any serious program of applied study exploring whether, how, for whom, etc. Jewish ECE does/does not act as a “gateway” to further and deeper Jewish engagement and choices is bereft of a meaningful conceptual framework. It seems to me that even before we undertake research to understand how well prepared our teachers and directors are to undertake the work of “engagement” we need to have a much deeper understanding of what engagement is. Thoughts about how to conduct such an inquiry that, I would imagine, would have direct application to practice? (And I do agree with Chaya that *then* we would need to study if/how teachers and directors are prepared - in pre-service - and supported - in-service - to advance such an agenda.)

Cathy M. Rolland
Thanks for your thought-provoking questions Wendy! First off, in answer to “how BUILD is providing opportunities for our ECE professionals and the centers themselves serving as a gateway to engagement/education,” the aim of BUILDing Jewish ECE is increase the capacity of early childhood education centers of synagogues and JCC’s so that they excel as relationship-driven institutions with the highest caliber customer service, integrated sales and marketing, enrollment, and family engagement and retention systems. To determine the extent to which this “new stage” meets expectations, progress along what we are referring to as Standards of Excellence will serve as a critical indicator. The “Standards of Excellence,” is a tool that allows us, in partnership with our nine BUILD leadership teams, to concentrate on important building blocks the greater Denver/Boulder Jewish community is interested in and concerned with, including: Jewish Life and Learning, Family Engagement, Marketing Enrollment and Customer Service/Retention. Regarding your question about applied study, we are fortunate to be working on the evaluation process of this two-year initiative with Dr. Michael Ben-Avie. Michael Ben-Avie, PhD from the Yale Study Center.

I love Shellie’s question about looking at Jewish engagement from either longitudinal and/or “retrospective” perspective, as part of the research picture. Since the Reform movement is currently involved in this at the youth and teen level, we have a unique opportunity to expand our work to include families with young children.

Lastly, the Reform Movements Religious Action Center (RAC) is committed to working with us as we examine the impact that government funding in having on our children and their families and the greater Jewish communities. The RAC would be an excellent partner if we were to explore mounting a study to help us understand if/how this may indeed be the case and, importantly, what we might do to mitigate these possible effects?

lymiller  Added by: Wendy Rosov
I am interested in the background of all of these entries. What, indeed, do we mean by engagement in Jewish life? How does any definition manifest itself in our early childhood programs, in our staff members, in our directors, in parents and children? I have recently become acquainted with the site for the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for living Torah. They are exploring what we might mean by Jewish sensibilities. With what "approaches to living and learning that permeate Jewish culture" do we want people in our field to engage? How do we assess this engagement?

Cathy M. Rolland
Lyndall hits on Chaya's earlier suggestion, that we must start with a shared language that not only defines what we are examining from the family perspective, but as important, what our stakeholders and organizations care about.

Wendy Rosov
This has been a rich conversation. We have had over 500 viewers over the past two days -- practitioners, researchers and funders alike. We have moved from questions of Jewish ECE as a gateway to Jewish engagement to the economics of Jewish ECE and the issue of universal pre-k and its implications for the sector, which we hope to take up in subsequent blogcasts. Regarding our initial “gateways” question, we've raised a number of promising areas for research and discussion including how to operationalize and measure engagement. We look forward to continuing these important conversations and fashioning one or more programs of applied study to explore them.

For those of you reading: please stay in touch with us!!