Heschel at the Gan: How Jewish Early Childhood Education Ignites the Potential of the Whole Family

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By Sonya Shoptaugh and Bill Robinson

“The essence of teaching is to have a dialogue with the child’s potential.”
—Carla Rinaldi

“The essence of Jewish education is to have a dialogue with the
whole family’s potential.”
—The authors

ENVISION . . . children digging in the ground discovering worms and other bugs, and a conversation ensues. As a few children excitedly pick up some wiggling worms and start carrying them around the playground, other children begin wondering if is it okay to take the worms out of their home. Might they miss their mommy? The teacher joins them and explains enthusiastically that they are being like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr.; as Heschel taught, they are responding ethically to the calling of the awesome world in which they live. Not coincidentally, a picture of these two ethical giants, walking together, adorns the classroom wall. Next week, following the continued interests of the children, the teachers support them as they explore how to build a playground for the worms, an offering from the children full of joy and desire for the well-being of the worms.

A month later, parents come to the school for a classroom meeting where teachers share the journey of the children’s project work through photos, videos, and conversations. In this meeting, the teachers offer a glimpse inside the ethical choices children are wrestling with as they design a playground for the worms. The parents become inspired and begin to think together more deeply about what it means for their children to live Jewish values in a robust and authentic way at school as well as at home. They begin working together to build a just community, centered in the school and serving the wider neighborhood.

Our children are not isolated individuals, experiencing life and learning on their own. They are social beings immersed in meaningful webs of relationship, of which the family is central and fundamental. Therefore, the nurturing of a vibrant life inspired and guided by Jewish values and practices—the outcome we all desire—requires young children to have a family actively engaged in Jewish learning and living.

CONSIDER THIS: “A child’s brain undergoes an amazing period of development from birth to three—producing more than a million neural connections each second. The development of the brain is influenced by many factors, including a child’s relationships, experiences and environment” (“Brain Development,” Zero to Three). Recognizing that humans have the greatest period of growth before the age of five years old brings into focus the crucial responsibility and vast opportunity we have in Jewish early childhood education. From the first breath of life, children are asking questions, searching for the meaning of the world around them and within them, developing theories of how things work and then testing out their ideas . . . children are the world’s first researchers in their lifelong quest to develop their potential.

NOW IMAGINE THIS: A family experiencing the growth of their first child undergoes an amazing period of development during the first three years. They are discovering and—inscribing in the life of the family—the values, rituals, and practices that will determine the shape of the family for decades to come. We need to recognize that as young adults get married and begin to raise children, marking the most formative moment in their adult lives, we are presented with the crucial responsibility and vast opportunity we have in Jewish early childhood education. Even before birth, parents are asking questions, searching for the meaning of the world around them and within them, developing ideas about the family they want to be, testing them out and seeking guidance from others on this same journey. If we focus on this critical time, we find that families with young children reveal the relevance of Jewish values, rituals, and practices for building thriving families in contemporary society.

How we regard young children—our beliefs about who they are, what rights they have, what place they hold in society—influences the kinds of environments and interactions we have with them, which then has an impact on their self-concept and the possibilities of who they can become. Judaism offers us distinct core values about what it means to be human, including the fundamental belief we are all born b’tzelem elohim (created in the image of God.) As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg taught, tzelem elohim means that each soul is born unique, of infinite value, and equal to all other souls. If we believe each person is created in the image of God, many questions arise.

What does it require of us as educators when we view all children as having unique needs and capabilities? What kind of educational spaces do we need to nurture children who have infinite value? What actions must we take when we recognize the rights of all children as being equal?

Now imagine seeing each family as being unique, equal, and having infinite value. What does it require of all of us to invest in the growth of these infinitely valuable families? What educational spaces do we need in order to welcome families with unique ways of being Jewish and being families? What actions do we need to take for all families to matter in our understanding of equality?

In addition to the story that began this article, here are two more vignettes that inspire us with the possibilities of emergent and deep Jewish learning for children and families:

ENVISION . . . one day the two-year-old children decide to decorate a chair in their classroom. They reserve this chair for special times. When a guest arrives, he is invited to have a seat on the special chair. As part of being welcomed into the classroom, visitors are made to feel at home. When a child has a birthday, she becomes the person of honor who gets to sit on the chair. The teachers document this ongoing experience by photographing the children’s engagement with each other and the chair, writing down the conversations taking place and making note of how the toddlers are designing these significant moments together. At the end of the week, when the parents join their children for the afternoon, they see and read about their children’s creation of sacred time and space. The teachers then engage the parents in a conversation about creating sacred moments in the lives of their families. Through meaningful dialogue, families and educators engage in exploring how spaces and times at home can become more sacred. Ideas range from the reading of books and the saying of the Sh’ma at bedtime, to the lighting of candles and blessing of the children one Shabbat, to the possibility of creating a special chair at home for those moments when one needs to have a place to sit when the sacred is recognized.

ENVISION . . . walking in to the hallway of the early childhood center surrounded by photographs of the center’s families on various vacations. In one picture, a family is visiting the grandparents in Florida and the smiles on everyone’s faces show the depth of love that is felt. In another, children miraculously float on the Dead Sea during a trip to Israel. The children have toured these pictures and heard parents tell stories about their travels and the wonderful time they had rediscovering themselves as a dynamic, silly, loving family, away from the demands of work and school. At the end of the hallway, the children have created a collage of drawings that tell the story of Abraham and Sarah as they journeyed lekh lekha (literally, go to yourself).

In the stories we have written about ourselves and our journeys throughout the generations, we understand we have an immense potential to create that which is new, to do whatever is desired or needed, and to love regardless of any circumstance. Our schools can carry on the dynamism in our tradition if they are based on a pedagogy of relationships, deep listening, and a regard for one another that facilitate an open and democratic style of learning for children and adults alike. It is within our power to ensure a deeper level of co-participation, as children, parents, and educators are involved in a process of learning—the vital action of being alive and making meaning. Such is the power and importance of Jewish learning that is now happening at a growing number of Jewish early childhood centers across the country.

Sonya Shoptaugh is the founder and director of Creative Childhood. She works with major Jewish organizations focusing on constructivist Jewish early childhood education.

Dr. Bill Robinson is the dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

This article was originally published in Gleanings, the ejournal of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. To read more articles about the the Promise of Jewish Early Childhood Education, visit www.jtsa.edu/gleanings-a-dialogue-on-jewish-education.

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  • I was privileged to take a course taught by Dr. Heschel, while I was a student at JTS. 18 at the time, it took many readings, life experiences, maturity to begin to fully comprehend his words.
    What stands out in my mind is an incident at which Dr. Heschel was the speaker; I do not remember the topic, but what is forever in my mind is an answer that he gave to a person in the audience to the following question, “Why should we teach a young child to say a brachah, he does not understand what he is saying?” Dr. Heschel’s answer, which is as strong in my mind as it was then was, “It is true that the young child cannot understand the words of the b’rachah, but an attitude is being created, so that when the child truly understands the words, the meaning is that much deeper”.
    Several years ago, his daughter, Dr. Susannah Heschel, spoke here in Baltimore. It was my pleasure and privilege to tell her about this incident about her late father; an incident which has guided much of my philosophy and efforts on behalf of Jewish early childhood education.

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