By Elliot Goldberg

Are we doing all that we can to support the development of early childhood educators as teachers of the Jewish tradition? Previously, I’ve argued that the learning of rabbinics begins in Jewish early childhood education settings. Awareness of the place of rabbinics in the curriculum gives us an important new perspective about the education of our youngest learners. Strengthening our schools’ ability to use the rabbinic canon to deliver a strong Jewish experience requires additional steps.

I recently spent two days with the faculty of an early childhood center (ECC) embedded in a Jewish day school, as a part of the Legacy Heritage Instructional Leadership Institute of the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The visit was part of a two-year initiative to strengthen the teaching and learning of rabbinics in the school.  A portion of the visit focused on developing an approach for incorporating the learning of Mishnah Bava Kamma, chapter 3, which deals with an individual’s responsibility for damages caused by personal property in the public domain, into the students’ school experience.

As we studied together, the ECC faculty made connections between the Mishnah and themes that are a part of school life at the start of the school year, especially teaching values and routines about cleaning up at the end of an activity and putting away personal property. It was striking how many examples of case law from the Mishnah resonated with situations that arise in a school’s hallways and classrooms. Our conversation about the various pathways we could use to bring the rabbinic material that we had studied into the classroom (a topic about which I hope to share more in the future) generated excitement and enthusiasm.

As we worked, a teacher raised her hand and asked a wonderful and challenging question, “How will we find texts as we explore other topics later, when there is no one here to provide them for us?” The question made us pause. As we unpacked it, it became apparent that she was not the only one with this concern.

The faculty of this ECC, individually and as a group, is extremely strong. They have embraced the notion that they are teachers of rabbinics and are engaged in the work of figuring out what this means in practice. They are aware that their knowledge of Jewish texts is limited, so they are concerned that without outside support, they will not be able to find the materials that will allow them to continue this work on their own. The teacher’s question lingered, even after I returned home.

At the start of a professional development experience, I often ask teachers “Why are you a teacher in a Jewish early childhood center?” I focus the ensuing conversation on each of the question’s three component parts: (1) Why are you a teacher? (2) Why are you teaching in an early childhood center? And, (3) Why do you teach in a Jewish ECC?

The responses that follow are always inspiring. Individuals who dedicate their careers to nurturing our youngest students have compelling stories about the teachers who inspired them and the experiences that made them decide to go into education. They speak with passion about their love of young children and the reward of being with them all day. They say how meaningful it is for them to be in a Jewish school, teaching Jewish values and experiencing the richness of Jewish life.

As the conversations continue, it becomes clear that many teachers feel far more secure in their role as early childhood educators than they do as Jewish educators. This is not a surprise. Teachers in early childhood are far more likely to have an academic background, certification and professional experience as teachers of young children than they do as teachers of Judaism.

So how can we help them? How can we build ECC teachers’ capacity and provide them with the resources, knowledge and confidence that they need to fully embrace their role as teachers of Jewish content, culture and practice?

The answer: Schools must provide teachers with regular, ongoing, sustained opportunities to study Judaism. My experience repeatedly demonstrates the power of sustained learning and its transformative impact on teachers.  The Colorado Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative’s Standards of Excellence affirms this through its vision for exemplary ECCs, which, to be so labeled, must ensure that “[a]ll staff are brought together for intentional study and learning grounded in a deeper examination and application of Jewish lenses and core Jewish values (Standard 6.6),” and to do so as part of professional development that takes place during consistent, protected, and paid non-student contact time (Standard 9.5).

ECE leadership programs like the Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute or the San Francisco Jewish community’s Jewish Resource Specialist (JRS) Initiative include Jewish learning as a part of their curriculum. They each provide learning experiences for school leadership with the goal that in doing so, school leaders will create and sustain schools with a culture of Jewish learning.

These initiatives are moving the field in the right direction, but if we are to build the capacity of ECC teachers to engage their students in rich Jewish learning experiences, we must do more to ensure that regular, sustained Jewish learning is part of the ECC culture.

As we start our new year, let’s commit to providing time for our ECC teachers to study Jewish texts and topics on a regular, ongoing basis and to connect them to resources—online, in-house and in the community—that can help build their capacity to engage with our tradition and apply what they learn to classroom settings. The investment will pay dividends now and build an endowment of knowledge that will enhance the Jewish experiences of our youngest students well into the future.

Rabbi Elliot Goldberg is a visiting scholar at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies Education, Brandeis University. He is an education consultant and rabbinics advisor for the Rabbinics Initiative of the Legacy Heritage Instructional Leadership Institute of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. This post is part of a larger project exploring the teaching and learning of rabbinics in early childhood and early elementary settings.