By Sari Luck Schneider

The perpetual question of how to keep our children and their families in our congregation after bar/bat mitzvah should be looked at in a different way. Let’s ask instead, how can our temples’ early childhood programs become a gateway to a Jewish community experience that lasts a lifetime?

The answer begins when a child is born, and the temple community reaches out to the family to congratulate them and welcome the new child. Ideally, temples should offer early childhood programs for babies with their caretakers, which can provide consistency in the outreach effort, and a chance for new families to begin to feel part of their temple ‘family.’

Programming is part of the answer, but it is not the most important piece. The responsibility lies with the larger temple community to reach out and acknowledge the significance of a new family in their midst. Personal outreach efforts from the greater congregational community, (i.e., volunteer and professional leaders, early childhood directors, clergy, lay leadership, administration) are needed to ensure that meaningful relationships with newcomers are established.

It is critical to fully appreciate the wonder of young children coming into our temple community. How many times did Moses walk by the burning bush without turning his head to look at it, to really see it? Only when God saw that Moses took the time to turn aside to really look at it, did God speak to Moses, (Exodus 3:3-4). Every child in our community is a burning bush, a miracle, a campfire around which we need to gather. Most families come to a congregation looking for meaningful relationships and experiences. We need to recognize this so that we can fulfill these needs, which are, interestingly, very much the same as ours. Our present and future Jewish community is right there walking in the door. Our newest members turned their heads to notice us; now we must turn our heads to notice them, to talk with them and partner with them, and establish new connections.

For communities that offer Jewish early childhood programs, Early Childhood (EC) directors can play a critical role in building relationships with families. With the support of lay leadership and clergy, EC directors can help young families to start building a lifelong connection to community, one that should seamlessly move from the EC program into the open arms of the congregation.

How do we make sure that EC directors are able to fill this important role? We must provide them with access to ongoing professional development, and the opportunity to partner with other dedicated members of their leadership teams. The Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism (ECE-RJ) has been providing a network of support, holding conferences and kallahs for its members for the last 13 years. EC directors and teachers can join the ECE-RJ to become part of its supportive and innovative community.

In addition, the Jewish Early Childhood Educators Leadership Institute (JECELI) has recently started a leadership institute for new EC directors that offers more than a year of personal mentoring and several weeks of intense learning. JECELI is a joint program of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in consultation with the Bank Street College of Education.

How do we keep our children and their families after the bar/bat mitzvah? We start by ensuring that our EC staff, clergy, and lay leaders are well equipped to reach out to new young families. Clearly, reaching out to our EC directors and planning systematic ways of connecting with the EC families is essential. Currently, there is even discussion about the possibility of introducing the topic of early engagement to clergy students at Hebrew Union College.

As we begin the New Year, let’s take the time to turn our heads toward the little campfires that come into our midst. Let’s all gather around them and share the warmth.

Sari Luck Schneider has been the Early Childhood Director at Temple Shaaray Tefila. She is the incoming president of the ECE-RJ, and is currently a mentor with JECELI. She is proud to be part of a task force at Shaaray Tefila that has as its primary goal: the facilitation of effective Family Engagement.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah, a daily e-mail on a topic of Jewish interest. Sign up now to add 10 minutes of Jewish learning to your life each day!