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Chairman's Perspective: The Gift of Identity

Peter Weidhorn, Chairman of the Union for Reform Judaism Board of Trustees
Ellen Marc/
This December, as our family gathers around the menorah to light the Chanukah lights, the loudest, most robust voices leading the songs will be coming from our family’s smallest members, Charlie, Marley, Max, and Hannah. Our grandchildren will also recount the story of the miracle of the oil, and, with pride, give us gifts they have made especially for us.

How times have changed. When our own children, Elyse and Ira, were young, our family Chanukah celebrations were little more than an opportunity to shower the children with gifts. Yes, we lit the menorah and ate potato pancakes, but our primary focus was on presents—making sure our son and daughter felt good about themselves amid December’s ever-present materialism.

Nowadays, as proud as I am of my grandchildren who take such joy in their Jewish knowledge, I’m even prouder of their parents, who are providing them with a rich, early immersion into Judaism through their congregations’ Early Childhood Education Centers.

Many of our Reform congregations have benefited from Jewish early childhood education programs, which not only provide a foundation for building strong Jewish identity in children, they also yield a steady stream of new synagogue members, many of whom make longtime commitments. For instance, at Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest, Florida, which has long offered an early childhood program, 77% of the children continue their Jewish education through Confirmation. And last year during the High Holy Days, twelve lay leaders stood on the bimah of Temple Kol Ami Emanu-El in Plantation, Florida—all but one having participated as tots in their synagogue’s early childhood program

To further the growth of Jewish early childhood education, the URJ Press has just published The Tot Shabbat Handbook: A Practical Guide for Engaging Young Families in Congregational Life, which discusses Tot Shabbat guidelines and models, as well as research on how young children develop and learn.

We know from brain research that young children absorb information like sponges—and that’s just as true for Jewish touchstones. If you are a parent or grandparent of young children, I urge you this Chanukah to give your little loved ones the gift of an early start on the road to Jewish identity. It is one gift that will keep on giving.

May your Chanukah be bright and filled with love.

Peter Weidhorn, Chairman
Union for Reform Judaism Board of Trustees


Union for Reform Judaism.