By Mark Horowitz, Ed.M., RJE
“Freedom, Moses suggested, is won, not on the battlefield, nor in the political arena, but in the human imagination and will. To defend a land, you need an army. But to defend freedom, you need education. You need families and schools to ensure that your ideals are passed on to the next generation, and never lost, or despaired of, or obscured. The citadels of liberty are houses of study. Its heroes are teachers, its passion is education and the life of the mind. Moses realized that a people achieves immortality not by building temples or mausoleums, but by engraving their values on the hearts of their children, and they on theirs, and so on until the end of time.”
—Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, in “A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion”
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down North American life nearly a year ago, early childhood educators and administrators in Jewish Community Centers (JCCs), synagogues, and across the early childhood spectrum faced a Solomonic decision: remain closed to keep everyone safe and healthy or reopen to serve the community and the children and families of essential workers.
In the JCC Movement, the majority of our 5,000 classroom educators, who served more than 35,000 children across the continent in pre-COVID-19 times, opted for the latter. In some instances, they mastered video technology at lightning speed—going from neophytes to leading parents and children through highly interactive online sessions. Other educators devised strategies to keep JCCs’ doors open for their communities’ young children and those of essential workers—all while also striving to keep themselves, their students, and everyone’s families safe and healthy.
Not only did these top-notch professionals succeed, but from Miami to Vancouver and from San Diego to Portland, we watched JCCs open their doors and keep them open. In some areas, our Js were the only institutions open—for Jews and people of other faiths and backgrounds—at all. Today, 100% of early childhood education programs have resumed in-person, with a participation rate of approximately 75% and much higher operating costs than before the pandemic.
Perhaps most striking of all: Early childhood educators, who, prior to the pandemic, spent hours participating in professional development programs and long, full days nurturing, caring for, and educating children from six months through kindergarten earn, on average, little more than $13 an hour.
Yes, you read that number correctly: $13 an hour, which in many instances keeps them below the federal poverty line.
“Early childhood care and education (ECCE) is more than preparation for primary school. It aims at the holistic development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs in order to build a solid and broad foundation for lifelong learning and wellbeing. ECCE has the possibility to nurture caring, capable and responsible future citizens.”
UNESCO is not alone. For years, research studies have concluded unequivocally that quality early childhood education is the linchpin of development for all. Even so, early childhood educators continue to languish—unappreciated, unsung, and grossly underpaid. Nonetheless, our classroom educators did not—not even for one moment—sacrifice their beliefs that children are curious, full of potential, and eager to share their unique views and rapidly developing personalities with those around them. Nor did they stop interacting with these capable beings or plunk them at tables with coloring books and crayons to keep them “busy.” Instead, our professionals continued to create experiences that further our understanding of children as agents of their own learning and helped the children build lifelong, critical thinking skills.
All for $13.53 an hour.
To be clear, I am not indicting JCCs or other early childhood settings in any way. Rather, the financial model of our schools is broken, and although the schools certainly do provide children with the high quality experiences they need to grow into healthy, capable adults, our teachers cannot continue to do so in the existing structure. This malfunction became even more visible when, following pandemic-related lay-offs and furloughs of many early childhood educators, a large number opted not to return to the classroom when they could because unemployment and jobs in other fields offer them a higher standard of living than did their invaluable work in the classroom.
Deeply distressed by this blatant inequity, JCC Association has partnered with the Union for Reform Judaism, which provides early childhood education through its North American congregational network, to address this and other pertinent issues within the realm of early childhood education. We encourage other Jewish movements and institutions to join us in this vital work—beginning with a critical evaluation of factors related to our most valuable resource: our classroom teachers. Indeed, it is time for our communities, states, and federal governments to step up. Together, we must revamp the financial models of our schools and recalibrate the value of our educators if we are to ensure a healthy future for North America’s youngest Jewish citizens and society at large.
As Lord Rabbi Sacks, z”l, so eloquently teaches: “The citadels of liberty are houses of study. Its heroes are teachers, its passion is education and the life of the mind.” On behalf of our communities’ educators, our families, and, most of all, our youngest students, we must partner with changemakers to bring equity and economic justice to the dedicated professionals who, to paraphrase Lord Rabbi Sacks, lead us in engraving our Jewish values on the hearts of the children, and they on ours, and so on until the end of time.
Please contact Mark Horowitz to learn more or to find out how you can join our efforts to address critical issues in the realm of early Jewish childhood education.
Mark Horowitz, Ed.M., RJE, is a vice president, program and talent, at JCC Association of North America. He holds an honorary doctorate of music from the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, NY.