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Why Universal Preschool Is a Must for Early Childhood Jewish Education

By Shma Koleinu

“The world only exists because of the breath of schoolchildren.”
Talmud Shabbat 119b

Vibrant Jewish early childhood centers are at the heart of our institutions. Our halls ring with singing, laughter and the chatter of communal connections. How, then, as believers in tzelem Elohim (the divine image and potential in each person), do we not pay our educators a living wage, and how can we create a more sustainable system for these centers, the cornerstones of our community — and the individuals who make them so?

With passage of the Build Back Better Act potentially on the horizon, we see the possibility that our highest-held values will be fulfilled, that our children, educators and families will be guaranteed the dignity and respect they deserve and to which they are entitled. This possibility, decades overdue, will positively affect early childhood Jewish education for generations to come by honoring educators, families and every child who breathes life into our communities.

In part, this legislation will allocate $400 billion to support all childcare and universal preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds nationwide. Each state will apply for federal funding and will have flexibility in allocating the money. A key feature of the legislation is a “mixed delivery system” that will grant federal funding to all types of programs: in public schools; private childcare centers, including faith-based centers; and home-based providers. This system will not only ensure our institutions can keep their doors open but also will strengthen and expand our communities — truly revolutionizing our programs for all.

We are grateful that so many of our early childhood educators are deeply committed to their work, their students and their communities, but that commitment must not come at the expense of a full and meaningful life. Despite the misconstrued expression that “teachers are in it for the outcome and not the income,” it is wholly unacceptable that these professionals all too often forgo a living wage and their quality of life in exchange for a meaningful career. Build Back Better funding will allow our private early childhood centers to recruit and retain qualified educators not only by increasing their salaries to better align with wages of local public school teachers but also by helping us give them the kavod (respect) they deserve for their dedication to teaching and learning with young children.

Even before the pandemic many educators existed on minimal wages and healthcare benefits — and that fact has not changed, even as advocates continue to strive for higher wages for educators, which, alone, is no longer enough. As Liz Gebert, director of KinderPlace at the Stamford JCC in Connecticut, suggests:

“People should be embarrassed that “living wage” is the goal. Living wage means you aren’t homeless and you aren’t hungry, but you can’t be your best self when you are working three jobs and wondering how you are going to pay your electric bill. We should be striving for a “living beautifully wage.”

Many Jewish early childhood schools have begun to shift their model, making it possible for them to accept government funding for their programs — and they are meeting with success. They are demonstrating tremendous creativity and flexibility in embracing core Jewish values in a universal setting; rethinking the context and structure of Shabbat and holiday celebrations; and incorporating Hebrew vocabulary into the classroom culture. Educators and centers are offering innovative experiences around Jewish holidays and engaging more families than ever before. Although such changes can be challenging, the benefits to our Jewish early childhood center communities are significant.

Emily Hausman, director of the Riverdale Y, a JCC in Bronx, New York, has been implementing universal preschool protocols in her school for several years. She shares:

“I set out to work with my educators to weave universal Jewish values through the curriculum set out by the Department of Education, engage with families outside of school hours to participate in rituals that could not happen in the classroom, and make our school community more accessible to everyone.”

Indeed, the opportunity for our schools to abide by economic policies that reflect our Jewish values — providing educators with compensation and benefits comparable to those of others in the area and enabling more families to enroll their children in our programs — is one for which we must be advocates and backers. If and when the Build Back Better legislation becomes law, our communities must understand how individual states will use this funding, so we can successfully reimagine our early childhood programs and creatively build our Jewish programming within the states’ parameters.

Now is the time for us to begin. We owe it to our children, whose very breath sustains the world — and to the tireless educators who design the children’s world anew every day — to do all we can to ensure it is a world that overflows with dignity and justice, for them and for future generations.

 Shma Koleinu is a collective of individuals dedicated to listening to and advocating for children, families and early childhood education. It is hosted by the Paradigm Project and the Sheva Center at JCC Association of North America.

Photo credit: Bender JCC of Greater Washington, Rockville, Maryland

This op-ed originally appeared on the eJP website.

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