Jewish Education in Early Childhood

The long-term value of early exposure to all things Jewish

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Judaica. When family and friends ask what gifts they can get you and your new baby , ask some of them for Jewish-themed gifts--your child’s first kiddush cup, a mezuzah for the nursery, or Jewish children’s art, books and music. If they are not purchased for you as gifts, buy these things yourself.
A great way to start or expand your family’s Jewish library is through the "PJ Library" program lauched by the Grinspoon Foundation in Western Massachusetts. The PJ Library sends children under the age of 5 Jewish-content books and music on a monthly basis. Check to see if your community is offering the program. If they aren’t now, chances are they will be soon, and you can look at the book selections as good selections for you to choose on your own as well.

Jewish Routines. Any good parenting book will tell you that children  need routines. They provide a necessary measure of predictability, safety and stability. Bedtime routines can include saying the Shema (traditional Jewish prayer recited upon rising and retiring) prayer with even the smallest children. You will be amazed at how soon they will be mimicking you, covering their eyes with their hand and repeating the words. There are morning rituals as well. The Union for Reform Judaism has wonderful pamphlets on both morning and evening rituals you can use with young children.

The Jewish calendar, with the weekly occurrence of Shabbat and the many annual holidays, provides another level of routine. Find meaningful ways to celebrate these special days. You can download an interactive Jewish calendar for your computer or PDA to keep track of these holidays, since they follow the Hebrew calendar which varies year to year from our civil calendar.

Sensual Jewish Experiences. Make meaningful Jewish memories through the senses. Allow your young children to make, smell and taste traditional Jewish foods. Let them see the glow of the Shabbat and Chanukah candles. Let them hear the sound of the shofar and Jewish music.

Formal Jewish Education

When your children have reached preschool age--at least 2 years old--consider Jewish preschool options as a good entrée into formal Jewish education for your child. Jewish preschools are a wonderful option to lay the foundation for a lifelong involvement in Jewish education.

Whatever the philosophy of the program, Jewish preschool is the first place where your child, along with a group of his or her peers, will be exposed to Shabbat celebrations, chapel time, the observance of different Jewish holidays, bible stories, Hebrew, Jewish music and foods and so much more of what Judaism has to offer--all geared at the perfect level for a young child. Your child will experience Judaism with all of their senses in a safe and nurturing environment designed with their needs and abilities in mind. Most communities with a Jewish Community Center have a preschool associated with it, as do many synagogues.
If your family doesn’t already belong to a JCC or a synagogue you want to use for preschool, check with your friends and see where they are sending their children to preschool and gauge their satisfaction. Call your community’s central bureau of Jewish education and speak with the early childhood education specialist. This professional works with all the Jewish preschools in your community, and can help you match up your interests with the right programs. Finally, many preschools now offer parent-child classes for children between 12-24 months, so you can sample a variety of settings before settling on a final decision.

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Caron Blau Rothstein

Caron Blau Rothstein is the former Director of Special Projects at the Center for Jewish Education in Baltimore, MD. She is currently developing programming for Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, OR.