/ BY JENIFER FRIEDMAN / SPECIAL FOR THE AJT //

 

This past October, The Pew Research Center released its study, “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which sparked much debate in the Jewish community.

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The study found that younger Jews are less connected to and less interested in Jewish life.  In a response to the pew study, Jerry Silverman wrote an article called, “4 Things To Do About Pew Survey Findings on Jewish America.”

In his article, Silverman suggests four examples of where we should put our attention to sustain the Jewish population.  He suggests, 1.) Free Early Childhood Programs, 2.) Jewish Camping, 3.) Birthright Alumni, and 4.) Jewish Development Zones.

Some may agree or disagree with Silverman’s suggestions, but what he did was begin a crucial conversation regarding our Early Childhood Programs. As an Early Childhood Director and teacher, I have seen enrollments in our institutions fluctuate for the better and for the worse.

The economy, as well as decreased birthrates, population changes and other schooling opportunities have all played a major role in the shrinkage of enrollment at Jewish preschools.

This trend is true not only here in Atlanta, but nationwide.  In a recent article in JTA, The Global Jewish News Source, Julie Wiener writes, “Early Childhood leaders estimate that there are 540,000 Jewish children under the age of five in the United States. Where are these children?  Why are they not connecting to our community? What can we do to change it?”

Jews in the Greater Atlanta area are extremely fortunate to have a choice in one of many fabulous early childhood programs. These programs are all housed in different areas, including Roswell, Marietta, Alpharetta, Sandy Springs, Dunwoody, and Atlanta, and include Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements.

Although the schools are different in those aspects, the areas in which they are the same lie in their purpose: to help nurture a strong, growing Jewish identity in a loving, caring environment and serve as a bridge between families and the larger Jewish community.

In data gathered by The Jewish Early Childhood Council of Atlanta, Atlanta Jewish preschools are currently serving about 1140 children.

I think most (if not all) will agree that our Jewish preschools are stepping stones to our Jewish future. In November, The Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly gathered in Jerusalem. The chairman, Michael Siegel, took the opportunity to speak about preschool, referring to Jewish Preschools as “ the seedbed of our community, “ and pledged to raise $1 billion over the next 10 years for a Jewish revitalization plan with tuition free Jewish preschool as its centerpiece.

Since Siegel’s proposal, another recent article from JTA, by Steven Nasatir, the president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, has brought more attention to how subsidizing Jewish preschools can work.  Many educators disagree, stating that a tuition free preschool is not the answer, and that more money should be put into the programs themselves.

Relieving financial stress on families that do choose a Jewish preschool is an incredible concept. In Georgia, many of our preschools compete with Georgia Pre-K which offers a free, quality curriculum to nearly 80,000 4-year-olds through funds from the state lottery and grants.

Putting more attention into programming, continuing teacher education, and leadership is also important and can make a huge impact on our programs. Investing in our schools, teacher training, communal marketing initiatives, scholarships for families, grants to advance innovation – these will all transform our efforts.

Whatever the end result, the fact that Jewish Early Childhood Education has been brought to the forefront of our national conversation is amazing and overdue.

I hope to see these conversations continue. In our schools, a child experiences the foundations of Jewish life, develops a love for Judaism and knowledge of Jewish values and morals.

We aim to provide a rich and meaningful Jewish program to all of our children and families alike. Families are more likely to engage “Jewishly” when they have a child in a Jewish program. Our Jewish Early Childhood Programs serve as the beginning of a child’s Jewish journey.

Why are we so important?  Why does there need to be a conversation about us?  Why do we need attention?  It brings me back to October’s Pew Study, and the fact that younger Jews are less connected to and less interested in Jewish life.  Your Jewish preschools have a way to engage young Jews, children and families.  We are here; we just need you to find us.

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