By Rachel Raz

“Ayeka, Where are you?”

The answer to this question is not simple. As we learn in the book of Genesis, being “present” physically is not an indication for being “present” mentally and spiritually. When it comes to educators and professionals engaging with children and families, being “present” in every sense is crucial for success.

Over 650 educators gathered together in early December in Maryland for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington annual Jewish Early Childhood Education Conference. This year’s intention of the conference was to address the question, “Ayeka, Where are you?” Mara Bier, Senior Education Officer of The Jewish Federation’s Early Childhood Education Department of Jewish Life and Learning, explained that the question is not about our physical location, as we were all sitting in the same space; but rather, the question is about where we are on our personal, professional and Jewish journey.

I was thrilled to see that this is the topic Federation’s educational team chose since very often we forget to ask this essential question. We focus on the what to teach and how to teach, but we forget to ask who is teaching. Who is the educator influencing children and their families? Where are they on their educational journey? Are they in a place to teach and influence others? Where are they in their Jewish journey? Can they be a model for children and families and share authentic Jewish experiences and inspire others to follow them? Are they “present” to inspire young children and their families?  At the conference, Federation took it one step further; they paused to ask the question and then helped the educators take their next steps in their personal, professional and Jewish journey.

Avi West, Federation’s Senior Education Officer, opened the day with a talk using a handmade oxygen mask, like the ones we see on airplanes. He explained that just as on the airplane we are instructed to first take care of the adult before we take care of the young and vulnerable ones, we must take care of ourselves, the educators. The message was clear; the Federation leadership understands that it is important to invest in the educators, to meet them where they are and help them grow if we want to ensure successful Jewish engagement and education for our children and their families. When passionate, knowledgeable and intentional educators in the Jewish community engage with children and their families, they have the highest likelihood of successfully inspiring strong Jewish identity with these children and families.

The day was packed with inspiring sessions filled with meaningful questions. There was music that brought everyone together and there was time to reflect and dive deeply into some key topics.  The learning does not end when the conference ends, because Federation offers many more learning opportunities for educators to help them continue their professional growth.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is doing inspiring work when it comes to early education and I was in awe to participate and witness their sacred work.

I encourage all communities, large and small, to also ask the question of “Ayeka, Where are you?” It does not matter if we are talking about preschool educators, supplementary school teachers, day school teachers, camp counselors, Hillel rabbis and educators and every individual. “Where are you” will help us understand where we want to go and what we need to do to get there.

Congratulations to The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington on a successful conference. May you go from strength to strength.

Rachel Raz, Director of the Early Childhood Institute at Hebrew College, Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish education at Hebrew College. Rachel advocates for investment in educators in order to nurture a knowledgeable, intentional, passionate and proud Jewish community.