Jewish Education in Early Childhood
The long-term value of early exposure to all things Jewish
Parents want the best for their children right from the start. Even while we are still pregnant, we are already seeking out the best pediatrician, the best hospital for our delivery, and the best items for our baby registry. At some point along the parenthood journey, however, Jewish parents will also explore the best Jewish aspects of childbirth and parenting.
Why start so early in a child’s life with Jewish involvement? Why not wait until religious school or summer camp, when your children are older and you can discuss their experiences with them?
Research shows the importance of early childhood experiences--from birth through 5 years--on a child’s future growth and development. It is during these early years that a child’s brain establishes lifelong neural pathways that set the course for future abilities and interests. For example, children who are exposed to a foreign language as infants and then not again until years afterwards have an affinity for that language. It stands to reason, then, that early Jewish experiences will profoundly affect a person’s later attitude towards and interest in Judaism.
According to Mark I. Rosen, Ph.D. of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, "Exposure to Judaism at home and in childcare can help children to grow up with a strong Jewish identity."
He and his colleagues have identified many Jewish communities across the country that are engaging in a wide range of endeavors targeted at these young families, and they are making recommendations to Jewish leaders about the importance of this work towards ensuring the future vibrancy of North American Jewry.
There are four primary types of programs identified by the researchers:
1. Prenatal education programs
2. Shalom Baby gift basket programs
3. Developmental and parenting education programs
4. JCC parenting centers
These programs and the peers groups that parents develop through them heavily influence the decisions families make about preschool and further Jewish education, as well as the importance of Judaism in home life.
So how do you get involved at home and in your community with a baby or toddler, or even as an expectant parent?
Pre-baby education. Check with local JCC, Jewish Family Services or area synagogues to see if they are offering any Jewish childbirth education programming.
Jewish Communal Welcome Packets. Find out if any of these or other Jewish institutions are offering "Shalom Baby" or other welcoming gifts/information packets for you and your new baby.
Childcare under Jewish auspices. If childcare is needed, again, check with the JCC and area synagogues to see if any of them offer infant care. It is also possible that you may find stand-alone daycare centers or home-daycare providers who provide a Jewish flavor to their services. If you are thinking about an au-pair, why not consider one from Israel?
Mommy & Me in a Jewish context. When seeking out parent-child classes, parenting advice, family activities, etc., seek these programs and services under Jewish auspices. Many Jewish communities have this information online through www.planitjewish.com or their local federation’s website, which may host the community calendar.
Time for yourself. Parents need to learn, too--both about how to be Jewish parents and about Judaism on an adult level. Check with your local Jewish organizations to see if they have parent support programs like the Parent Resource Place in Baltimore run through Jewish Family Services. The international Melton program has started a track called PEP—Parent Education Program. Many communities run the Me’ah program for adult Jewish learners. Both Melton and Me’ah are great opportunities for adult Jewish Education.