By Susie Wexler
Parent orientation is an emotional time at any school, especially for parents whose children are entering school for the first time. At Jewish early childhood centers, though, it’s not only about the excitement and nerves surrounding the first day of classes. For many of these parents, it’s also their first foray into Jewish institutional life as a family.
I began my role as director of the early childhood center at Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (BJBE) on the first day of school last year. In addition to discovering where supplies were housed, how paperwork was filed, and what talents the teaching staff possessed, I also began to learn about the relationships and voids that impacted our relationship with the synagogue community. I saw that we were doing great on some fronts but that there was vast potential for further innovation.
I spent my first year as director learning about the program, identifying its strengths and areas for growth. In that time, I experienced the depth of relationships that existed within the halls of the early childhood program and throughout the congregation. I witnessed the compassion that guided families through lifecycle events in a congregation: birth, b’nai mitzvah, weddings, funerals.
As I considered the role of Judaism for families at these lifecycle events, I began to envision key dates within the early childhood center as lifecycle events – starting with parent orientation.
Rather than seeing it as a date on the calendar demanding checklists, paperwork, and school supplies, I began engaging congregational stakeholders around the idea of reimagining the parent orientation process so that we engaged local families with young children, supporting their angst about separating from their child and welcoming them into Jewish institutional life.
As a new director, I had the opportunity to institute change. Fortunately, our congregation had recently been selected to participate in the URJ’s Chicago Early Engagement Leadership Initiative (CEELI), a cohort of 12 Jewish early childhood centers from various denominations and organizations from throughout the Chicago area.
With support from the Crown Family Philanthropies and facilitated by URJ staff, this initiative connected us with other local Jewish early childhood centers to experiment and incubate new ways of engaging families with young children.
At our first CEELI meeting of the school year, I sat in a conference room with our director of education, a temple board member, two teacher representatives, and our CEELI project director. Thus began the process of defining engagement for families with young children in our early childhood program.
We wanted to reimagine the way our congregation engaged families with young children. Rather than seeing the early childhood center as a distinct program, we hoped to create a stronger and more lasting connection between young families and the synagogue community. Through intentional planning, we could create authentic relationships between young families and the greater synagogue community.
We envisioned early childhood programs designed to expose families with young children to opportunities within the congregation and congregational programs could specifically invite young families to attend. with this goal in mind – and by taking the time to reflect, plan, and dream – we soon developed a plan of specific programs to target, modify programming, and communicate appropriately toward a goal of intentional, systematic change.
We began conversations with synagogue stakeholders in the spring with vision for a new and improved Parent Orientation Night protocol. Guided by the goal of having a seamless, authentic connection to the synagogue community, we invited synagogue staff to be present at the event so parents could get to know them as individuals and as resources.
At this year’s Parent Orientation Night, I realized what progress we had made in achieving our goal.
That night, the president of the congregation and our CEELI board representative personally welcomed families to the community, and the education director served as a greeter and hostess to new parents. The bookkeeper was available to answer billing queries, the membership director was present to provide information about the congregation and High Holiday services, and the receptionist was on hand to assist with paperwork and forms. Our rabbi spoke to welcome families to our Jewish community, and our cantors led the room in a rousing, spiritual Shehecheyanu.
The congregational welcome continued beyond that evening.
On our first Shabbat of the school year, every child in school was presented with a challah, grape juice, and candlesticks, along with a welcome letter from the clergy and an invitation to participate in congregational experiences from the membership team. The energy in the halls was joyful as families realized the gifts came from the congregational community.
Our school year began with an authentic connection to the synagogue – and in so many ways, we have our CEELI experience to thank.
Cross-posted on the URJ’s Inside Leadership Blog