I recently attended a workshop for parents in Brooklyn on how to choose a preschool. I’ll spare you my rant about how it’s insane that we need a workshop on this. But there I sat, along with a dozen other parents in our semicircle, dutifully taking notes on things like the Montessori and Reggio Emilia educational approaches and how to ensure that a preschool has enough wooden blocks. I wish I were kidding.
It seems that since the day my daughter, Mika, was born two years ago, it has been one long struggle to figure out her child care. The search officially started when she was 5 months old and I went back to work. I toured a day care center where 10 highchairs were lined up like an assembly, next to 10 ExerSaucers, leaving the impression that no child was actually ever held. The organic food they promised looked more like tater tots and French fries.
When I left, I cried. I just couldn’t imagine leaving my daughter there nine hours a day. With strangers.
Thinking back to that time, it’s remarkable how vulnerable I felt. As a new parent, I had no idea what to look for or what would ultimately end up being important to me. I would now toss the wooden toys and fresh food that I cared about then in favor of truly loving and patient teachers. What I really longed for was something familiar, something that felt like home. Maybe something Jewish.
After that incident, I checked with all the local synagogues to see if they offered infant care. None of them did. The closest they came was a program for 2 year olds, and even that was only a few hours a day.
It seemed that in my 20s, there was a constellation of Jewish organizations whose sole function was to reach people like me — that is, Jews who were not members of a synagogue and weren’t sure if they would be — and let us know that we could be Jewish and cool, too. But their energy and money are misplaced. Sure, I enjoyed Heeb’s boozy parties, but there’s nothing stable about life when you’re 22. It’s a time when you’re trying on new identities and it’s not clear that any one of them will stick.
So, I’m going to let you in on a secret. Do you want to know the best way to ensure that young Jews get involved in Jewish life? Jewish day care. I can promise you that if you open amazing child care centers with bright open spaces, flexible hours and loving teachers, we will come. And we will love you. And our kids will observe the Sabbath. And we will make Jewish friends.
In the past two years, I’ve created a whole new social circle around my daughter. The last time that I had such a major social readjustment was in college. These first two years seem to be the most critical time in forming a community, which makes it the perfect time to invite people in.
And it’s mystifying to me that Jewish organizations haven’t seized this.
The only ones that seem to do this are the local community centers, which have done a good job of offering infant care. Out of the nearly 200 early childhood programs at JCCs across North America, more than half of them have infant care programs. But outside of that, a few synagogue schools, programs run by Chabad (kudos to them for targeting young secular families) and a couple others in synagogues, there’s nothing else.
In all of Westchester County and Manhattan, there is only one full-day Jewish infant care program to which anybody could point. It opened just this year in New Rochelle, at Temple Israel; the hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and it accepts children as young as 6 weeks old. Parents of infants are automatically considered members of the synagogue.
All the experts I talked to said the same thing: The Jewish establishment is missing one of the greatest opportunities it has to welcome young Jewish families. Ruth Pinkerson Feldman, former director of early childhood services at the JCCs of North America, said it is a “no-brainer” that more money and energy need to be going into this.
So if it’s obvious that there’s no more effective way to reach young families than by creating excellent, affordable child care, why isn’t it happening?
Basically, it’s expensive. While preschools potentially generate income, programs for babies and toddlers are extremely pricey to run. Depending on the state, a ratio of one teacher to four or five children is required, in addition to special kinds of space and training.
But hey, Birthright is expensive, too. In that case, Jewish continuity trumps all thoughts of seeing any kind of financial return in the short run. Instead, counted as invaluable are the number of marriages, or at least hookups, that come out of it.
Do you want to know the best way to ensure young Jews get involved in Jewish life? Jewish day care.
Recently, I took my daughter for her first preschool interview. It wasn’t at a Jewish preschool because I missed the 5 a.m. lineup to secure an application at the local synagogue. So, at this audition, six moms and I piled with our toddlers into a room where administrators seemingly evaluated the little and big people with equal scrutiny.
My daughter futzed around with some Play-Doh, fed a baby doll with a bottle and then made a ruckus during what I think was supposed to be quiet time. I’m not sure what the building was before the preschool took it over, but on the way out I couldn’t help but notice the empty space on the door jam where a mezuza had been ripped off.
Deborah Kolben is the editor of Kveller.com. She has written for The New York Times, the Financial Times, the New York Daily News and the New York Post.