By Janet Harris, Denise Moyes-Schnur, Dawne Bear Novicoff, and Seth Linden –

As more communities around the country recognize both the need for, and potential of, Jewish early childhood education (as mentioned  in a previously published article in Jeducation World: Envisioning A Collaborative, Modern and Seamless Future for Jewish Early Childhood Education), they also experience the simple reality that educators need training and ongoing support in order to deliver meaningful ECE learning experiences. Yet, as Cantor Mark Horowitz, Vice President of JCCA and Director of the Sheva Center for Innovation in Early Childhood Jewish Education & Engagement, explained, the broader field of Jewish education has come up short in offering Jewish ECE educators what they need to reach their full potential. This not only limits the educators – it in turn it limits and directly impacts how communities reach and engage families during these formative years.

The Jewish Resource Specialist (JRS) Initiative in the Bay Area offers an effective model to elevate Jewish ECE.

We also believe it is highly adaptable to other communities as they work to improve and expand ECE. Since planning began in 2008, the Early Childhood Education Initiative (ECEI) of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties (the Federation), in partnership with the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Initiative’s primary funder, have worked to design, implement, and evaluate this model. You can review the model documentation and contact Denise Moyes-Schnur, the Federation’s Senior Early Childhood Educator to learn more.

In brief, the JRS Initiative advances an ECE program teacher to a “Jewish resource expert” in order to support their school community – teachers, parents, and children. They work to: 1) Deepen Jewish learning by strengthening the opportunities available in the school curriculum for children to engage in Jewish learning experiences and 2) Engage families in Jewish life by connecting families to Jewish opportunities at the preschool, within the preschool’s host institution, as well as in the broader Jewish community. As a cohort, the Jewish resource experts receive ongoing coaching, mentoring, and resource support to build Jewish knowledge and enhance the ability to create rich classroom and community experiences.

In addition to the ongoing support from the ECEI, other central components of the JRS model, include ECEI-sponsored conferences and webinars; days of learning and retreats; and an Israel seminar to deepen educators’ personal connection to Israel and empower them to facilitate a unique connection between their learners and Israel. All of these are part of the process of professionalizing the field, showing teachers they are valued and have a support system, and helping communities deliver meaningful Jewish experiences to families with young children.

Our first cohort from 2011-2014 – the pilot phase of the program – included five Jewish ECE programs in the San Francisco Bay Area. We currently are in our second cohort with ten programs, and we see the outcomes as the JRS Initiative raises the level of excellence and prominence of ECE programs within the Jewish community, while also engaging more families than before the Initiative’s implementation.

Separate from the model documentation, an independent evaluation of the JRS Initiative pilot found that the JRS Initiative is linked to the following findings:

  • More explicit integration of family programming and classroom learning
  • Jewish content integrated into typically secular family programs
  • Additional Jewish classroom content that is meaningful and relevant
  • Holiday programs that draw more deeply from Jewish tradition
  • High parent satisfaction with opportunities to explore Jewish life
  • New opportunities for teachers to explore Jewish ECE and to enrich their focus on Jewish education in their curriculum
  • Teachers’ increased confidence in bringing Jewish content into the classroom
  • Families participating in additional Jewish events around their community
  • Parents choosing a Jewish educational framework for their preschool graduates

The JRS Initiative addresses the dearth of leaders working to build Jewish ECE by offering support, mentorship and professional development opportunities needed to craft a career path. These are field-wide demands that can be met by developing the skills and Jewish knowledge of the JRS educators who then bring ideas and guidance to their schools.

Early childhood education deserves our absolute best efforts

We have witnessed the positive outcomes of teen Jewish education and engagement and young adult Jewish education and engagement when the field collectively decides to invest and remain committed. When children enjoy Jewish learning and rituals at school, they bring them home, introducing them to the entire family. We see the outcomes in our community – every day. Together, let’s help more communities offer excellent Jewish ECE and realize its potential as a gateway for even more involvement in Jewish life.

Janet Harris is Director of the Early Childhood Education Initiative at the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation. Denise Moyes-Schnur is Senior Early Childhood Educator at the Federation. Dawne Bear Novicoff is Assistant Director at Jim Joseph Foundation. Seth Linden is Program Officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation.

You can access the JRS model documentation here.