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Reflections from an Early Childhood Jewish Educator

Hard to believe, but November has arrived, and with the end of year in sight, the staff at the Early Childhood Education Initiative decided it would be a great idea to share a personal story from one of our programs. Here is some insight from one Early Childhood Jewish Educator who is currently enrolled in the second cohort of the Certificate in Jewish Early Childhood Education through Gratz College program. We are grateful to Gratz student Emma Schnur, who so graciously agreed to share some of her experiences with us.

By Emma Schnur

I like to think that I was destined to be an Early Childhood Educator. When I was a child and had days off from school, I would go with my mother to her preschool classroom. I was delighted whenever I was asked to cut out shapes for projects, take out manipulatives or simply sit with the children during circle time. Those were the days that I greatly looked forward to, and from that young age, I knew I was meant to work in the field of Early Childhood Education.

I received my BA in psychology with a minor in Education from the University of California at Davis. Since graduation I began working at Gan Avraham, the preschool program at Temple Beth Abraham. I spent the year working primarily in the two year old program, and I was thrilled to finally be able to work in a classroom of my very own. During the year, I worked alongside two experienced co-teachers and learned a great deal about being a teacher and my own educational values. Through this experience, I quickly realized that I wanted to formalize my education and learn as much as I could about this ever changing field.

The Gratz experience has been extremely enlightening for me in the several months I have been in the program. I have been able to involve myself in a group of teachers where I can discuss my perceptions, questions and hesitations, and learn through listening to other educators who deeply care about their work. The curriculum has enabled me to reflect on my own ideals about Jewish education and to understand how to maintain my Jewish values and infuse them into everyday activities.

Recently, the Gratz cohort went on a retreat to Green Gulch Farm. In this incredibly beautiful environment, we were asked to look at the tremendous natural beauty around us and hone in on the details. We were asked to step away from our usual perceptions as teachers and consider the viewpoints of children. Though it may have been completely new territory for some of us, we were asked to simply notice—notice how we act in the classroom and notice what our students are interested in.

This program has given me the tools to recognize how my attitude and ideas greatly impact the children, and the teachers within the cohort have inspired me to become more reflective in my classroom. I am grateful for the opportunity to be involved in the program, and am highly anticipating the learning yet to come.


An inspiring evening with Dr. Debbie Findling

On September 22, 11 graduates from the first cohort of the Certificate Program in Jewish Early Childhood Education through Gratz College proudly accepted their diplomas. Funded by the JCF’s Endowment Fund along with the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the program began two years ago under the Jewish Community Federation’s Early Childhood Education Initiative, and marks the first endeavor in professionalizing the field of Early Childhood Jewish Education in the Bay Area. Dr. Debbie Findling, keynote speaker for the evening, inspired everyone in the room with her moving speech. We share her remarks below in hopes that it will ignite within you what was felt that evening. Special thanks to Dr. Findling for allowing us to share her words.

Dr. Debbie Findling:
I’ve worked in the field of Jewish education for over 25 years. I have so many degrees that at one time my student loans were nearly the size of the national debt. And yet, I am an accidental Jewish educator.

When I look back at my career, I’m not sure how I ended up here. I grew up in an assimilated home. My Holocaust survivor father didn’t reject Judaism because of the Holocaust; he was robbed of it by the Nazis. He became an orphan when he was 8 years old, hid in the forests of southern France for several years until he was rescued and brought to the U.S. and placed in a foster home where he was not exposed to Judaism or Jewish life. He didn’t know what it meant to be a Jew or how to practice Judaism. And so he didn’t.

My mother grew up in Casablanca, Morocco where the culture and politics of her country forced Jews to hide their Judaism. When she moved to the United States after marrying my father, she too didn’t know how to be Jewish. So, my parents raised my brothers and me in a suburb of Detroit where they practiced the Judaism they saw around. It had two major premises:

  1. Go to synagogue once a year on Rosh HaShana. Buy an expensive new outfit and a fabulous hat; spend most of the time in the lobby chatting with friends.
  2. Send your kids to religious school no matter how much they complained. But I was clever and convinced my parents to let me drop out when I was in 3rd grade. That ended my Jewish education.

In my early 20′s, fresh out of college with a highly unmarketable degree in Women’s Studies, I was hired at a Jewish Community Center as the director of the teen program – a job for which I was totally unprepared. I was responsible for a region spanning three states, involving more than 500 teens, supervising three paid staff and 20 volunteers. My job description included overseeing a six figure operating budget, representing the community, planning all Jewish educational programming, and serving as a spiritual guide and Jewish mentor. I knew absolutely nothing about budgeting, supervision, organizational development, management, educational theory or pedagogy. More importantly, I knew almost nothing about being a Jewish educator. My Jewish content knowledge was limited to the handful of things I remembered from my childhood, including the dreidel song and eating round challah on Rosh HaShana, though I wasn’t quite sure why it was supposed to be round.

My only qualification was that I had a natural rapport with teens, but, while I was good at connecting with teens, I was fairly ineffective at inspiring, encouraging or helping them to explore their own Jewish identity. I didn’t have the knowledge or skills. I didn’t even know where to start.

After feeling like an imposter for nearly 10 years in the field of Jewish education, in my late 20′s I decided to get real. I applied to graduate school at the University of Judaism. One of the questions on the application was to describe my Jewish educational background. I wrote about Mrs. Pont, my nursery school teacher at Congregation Shaarey Zedek – the synagogue preschool I attended when I was three years old. I wrote that my preschool felt like home and Mrs. Pont was like comfort food.

I went on to receive three graduate degrees in Jewish education. Last year, I took my then nine year old daughter to Detroit to spend Rosh Hashana with my family. We went to services at Sharey Zedek. I walked in and there was Mrs. Pont who I hadn’t seen in nearly 45 years. Although I didn’t know it when I was three, she had planted in me the seeds that would become a fundamental guide in my Jewish journey.

Each of us has followed a different path on the road to becoming a Jewish educator. Sometimes we knew where we were heading. We had a clear plan and knew the routes to get us there. Other times, we wandered. Not quite sure which path to take or where it would lead, but we trusted the instinctual GPS in our mind.

All of us go on journeys. Some are intentional. Some unintentional. I was a Jewish educator by accident. And I wasn’t very good at it, until I intentionally decided to become a Jewish educator, and then I actually started to succeed. But Judaism, Jewish life, Jewish identity are too important to be left to accidents. Participating in the Gratz Certificate program in Jewish ECE was your road map. Each of you chose to follow the map and to walk intentionally on the path of your professional journey. Over the past two years, you have put in countless hours and effort engaging in a rigorous course of study to transform you from preschool teacher to Early Childhood Jewish Educator; from learner to scholar; from participant in the community to leader. But I suspect you didn’t do it just for yourselves. In becoming early childhood educators, scholars and leaders, YOU elevate the entire field of Early Childhood Education. You went on a journey, so that you can help guide other people’s children on their Jewish journeys. Your commitment to Jewish education is no accident. And your commitment to planting the seeds that will grow inside the children in our preschools to guide them on the path of their own budding journey is no accident. Today we celebrate and honor you at this siyyum.

Siyyum in Hebrew means completion. As you graduate from the Gratz College program, you complete one journey – of professional and personal development. But unlike 25 years ago, I know why the Rosh Hashana challah is round. It’s a metaphor, for the continuous cycle of life. As one year ends, another begins. As this Rosh Hashana approaches, one journey for you ends, and its dawn brings a new journey. As one door closes, another opens, and the key to opening the door is to do it with kavanah – with intention.

Mazal tov to you on your siyyum – your completion of one journey. All of us here this afternoon look forward to the remarkable impact you’ll make in Early Childhood Jewish Education on whatever path you take on your next journey.

Shana Tova u’metukah – I am confident that the New Year will be sweet.

From preschool teachers to Jewish educators

“When I started the Gratz program, I thought of myself as a preschool teacher. Now I think of myself as a Jewish Educator.”Amanda Mahan

In another Bay Area first, after two years of rigorous coursework and seminars, a cohort of 11 teachers from Jewish preschools in the Bay Area are receiving their certificates in the Gratz College Certificate in Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative (ECEI) program. The teachers are celebrating their achievements at a graduation event, known as a siyyum at the Contemporary Jewish Museum on September 22.

The graduates represent eight Jewish preschools in the Bay Area. Their studies have included Jewish Thought, Bible, and Spirituality, along with special subjects in Early Childhood Education. Each class integrates both Jewish and Early Childhood Education so that the curriculum is seamlessly integrated for optimum learning by the children.

The goal of the program is to deepen the Jewish curriculum at the preschools within the framework of excellence in Early Childhood Education.

The teachers have seen big changes in their classrooms. One of our graduates stated: “My classroom reflects Jewish life in a very authentic and deep way, and is almost unrecognizable from when I began my studies at Gratz two years ago. I have a wealth of knowledge that I can now share with children and their parents.”

The featured speaker, Dr. Debbie Findling of the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, will address the students and acknowledge them for their devotion to Jewish Education, and the Bay Area Jewish community. The graduates and their families, along with community leaders, will share the fruits of their learning through exhibits that reflect their work in their particular school.

Sponsored by The Early Childhood Education Initiative of the JCF , the program has brought the teachers together monthly to participate in a Community of Practice, as well as to attend one and two-day retreats over the two years. The face-to-face aspect of the program, which has proven to be invaluable to its success, has been funded by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, and facilitated by Ellen Brosbe, the Early Childhood Education specialist at the Bureau of Jewish Education. The generous scholarships for the students were provided by the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of the JCF.

The second cohort of the Gratz program begins in September 2011.


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