Wednesday, September 12, 2012

URJ Virtual Symposium
on Jewish Education Day 3:
Early Childhood Ed:
A Holistic View of Jewish Education

The RJ.org blog had two postings in the Virtual Symposium today. Here is the second, by . As before, please comment on the RJ.org blog, so that we are all part of the same conversation!


The seven phenomenon that Dr. Charles Edelsberg outlines are compelling, astute, and inspirational. Two of the ideas he offers – expanding the concept of education and focusing on relationships – are key ingredients in excellent early childhood education. We agree wholeheartedly with his vision and differ on only one point: The future he describes does not require prognostication and prediction, because the future is now.

Dr. Edelsberg advises that we move beyond the concept of schooling in our thinking about Jewish education. Early childhood education lends itself naturally to a broader view of this idea. We see our students as learners from the moment they enter the world, and we see them in the context of their families. The family is the student, and early childhood education theory tells us that we must address the needs of the family if we are to nurture the development of the child. This naturally promotes a holistic view of Jewish education; the system must be seen as a whole.

Reform Jewish life today is about choice, not obligation. The idea of choosing is certainly not new to Reform Judaism, but the types of choices that families face are. The youngest learners in our congregations – the students in our early childhood programs or the babes in arms of the families walking through the doors of our buildings – live in a rapidly changing and expanding world. Jewish choices are not only measured against each other but against everything else, as well. The engagement our congregations offer to families on all levels competes with a plethora of opportunities for spiritual enrichment, community building, education, and, ultimately, identity development. Young Jewish families seek intentional communities where they can engage deeply and meaningfully, and the moment is ours to capture.

Our thinking about Jewish education must include early childhood programs, including schools and other early engagement offerings, as well as congregational schools, day schools, camps, youth groups, adult learning, congregational and community life; everything is sacred. Not only must we think holistically and broadly about the entire system, we must also think strategically. Human beings are becoming more and more accustomed to the concierge lifestyle: We are shepherded from one product, idea, or activity to another as our electronic devices flash suggestions for what else we might like or need based on what they “know” about us. If professionals in the Jewish world don’t learn from this model and work together to guide the Jewish journey of the families they encounter, we, as a community, are missing the boat.

Dr. Edelsberg also reminds us that we must make the shift to relationship-based learning. This concept is the foundation of learning in the field of early childhood education. Research from Harvard University’s National Scientific Council on the Developing Child shows that young children learn in the context of relationships: “Stated simply, relationships are the ’active ingredients‘ of the environments influence on healthy human development… Relationships engage children in the human community in ways that help them define who they are, what they can become and how and why they are important to other people.” In order to ensure that there will be Jewish adults of the future, Jewish children of today must have relationships both in and out of the family context that help them learn about who they are and why that is important. The Jewish families of today have similar needs. 

They must connect with each other, with clergy and synagogue professionals and with their communities, to process who they are as a Jewish family and the importance of their place in the Jewish community.
Early childhood education has never been limited in scope, only in chronology. We have always known that young children are students of their environment; their classroom is the world, beginning with the microcosm of their family and blossoming outward as they grow. Relationships are integral to human development from the beginning of life. As Dr. Edelsberg teaches us to broaden our view of education, these should be among the tenets of Jewish education for all learners, for all time.

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