More than twenty years ago, when my now twenty-five-year-old son was in Nursery School, I learned how little I understood about how the minds of young children work.
Instead of walking him to school one rainy morning, I decided to drive. We were sitting at a red light when I noticed that the vehicle in front of me was a police van, and there was a horse inside. “Hillel,” I said to my son. “Look at that horse in the police van!” There was a long pause, after which my son said, half to himself, “I wonder what the horse did…”
It was at that remarkable moment that I realized how much more than “child care” quality early childhood education is. And as I progressed as a parent and grew as a rabbi as well, I came to understand how precious the contribution is that quality Jewish early childhood education makes in the developing Jewish identity of a young child.
When I watch parents coming to the orientation that opens each year of our Jewish Early Childhood program, I am always keenly aware that, for many of them, it’s the first time they’re setting foot in a synagogue since their bar/bat mitzvah. Ambivalence abounds. Some very powerful rooting instinct pulls them back, but it’s not an easy step for them, and their mixed feelings about their own Jewishness are written on their faces.
Their children, however, have no such ambivalence, and it is the magic of great Jewish early childhood educators that makes their first encounters with Judaism and Jewish living magical and enriching. At the most basic level, they learn to associate the very act of walking into a synagogue building with a pleasurable experience. What a concept! But of course they learn much more. They learn the joy of anticipating Shabbat’s arrival, and how even Friday feels special because of it. They learn the wonderful rituals that make Jewish holidays special and unique, the importance of tzedakah, the special place of Israel in the life of a Jew, and maybe- just maybe- by learning how to play nicely with each other, they can extrapolate the importance of Jews learning to play and work nicely with each other as well.
Our Nursery School director of fourteen years, a wonderful woman named Adrienne Cohen, just retired following the completion of this past school year. As I stood with her at a dinner in her honor, I tried to come up with the right words to pay her tribute. I think I spoke nicely, but I realized as I was speaking that I couldn’t really say enough. There’s really no adequate way to acknowledge the contribution of a Jewish educator whose life’s work has been to teach our youngest children how to love being Jewish.
Undoing the cynicism and alienation that some adult Jews bring with them to synagogue life is a terribly difficult challenge. I hope it’s as difficult to lose the good feelings that are produced by a great Jewish Early Childhood program!