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Action: Involving Families with Young Children
by Barbara Pash

Universal pre-K students learn about
Torah ornaments at Temple Israel
of New Rochelle's Kehillah School, 2012.

Two years ago, Lisa Messinger, president of 1,200-member Westchester Reform Temple (WRT) in Scarsdale, New York, began a "conversation" about the 25% enrollment decline in its early childhood center—from the high of 152 children in 2004 to 114 in 2010.

Also of concern was the high number of early childhood center families—65%—who were not temple members. A survey showed that a sizeable number of them were not planning to join the congregation until their child entered the religious school's third grade, the mandatory start for bar/bat mitzvah.

"We didn't want people to wait until third grade to join," Messinger says.

She began the conversation by forming an early engagement task force. It sought advice from the Union for Reform Judaism about how other congregations were addressing these issues, and then adapted practices to meet WRT's needs. A social worker, added to the center staff, began leading new, free infant classes (based on the Mommy and Me concept) for the wider community and helping three- and four-year-olds with social skills. The congregation realigned the center's schedule to match that of the public schools, enabling the children to attend the school while their parents worked. New marketing material both highlighted the center's Jewish curriculum and conveyed that the center's "learn through play" approach would meet the high standards of academic achievement in this community.

And then, as WRT leaders realized that a new model was needed to accomplish both goals—increasing enrollment in the early childhood center and the families' membership in the temple—a new membership task force began examining the broader issues. WRT had been offering reduced membership rates for singles and people under 35, but a number of parents of center children were 35+. So the membership task force recommended and the board approved a new membership policy: Starting in July 2012, temple membership would be included with early childhood center tuition for parents whose oldest child attended the center. "Rather than waiting for people to join, we realized we needed to open our doors to begin their sense of belonging before they paid anything," Messinger says.

The new membership policy also extends to the religious school. Families who enroll their children in kindergarten through grade two receive a 50% membership discount.

WRT Executive Director Yoel Magid reports that "after years of declining enrollment, we're seeing an increase." The center enrolled 130 children for 2012-13—up 15% over the previous school year. And 31 families have enrolled their children in the qualifying religious school grades, compared to an average of 7 or 8 families over the last half dozen years.

"Our tremendous effort to make the early childhood center and membership more attractive is paying off," he says.

In 2011, four young mothers, all friends and members of 1,000-family Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts, held an informal brainstorming meeting around one of their kitchen tables. With the exception of the congregation's Tot Shabbats, they felt there were not enough temple activities for families like themselves with young children, and they were determined to change that.

The four mothers devised Shir Shabbat, a Sabbath celebration program of singing and dancing for parents and children, open to members and prospective members alike. To pay for the professional entertainment, each woman chipped in $250.

In the beginning, only a dozen families participated in the monthly Tot Shabbat program. Now the Tot Shabbat and Shir Shabbat programs each attract three dozen families curious enough about the congregation to spend a Friday night or Saturday morning there. A bagel brunch extends the experience.

Shir Shabbat's success prompted TBE to form a "Families with Young Children" committee that "gives our demographic a voice at the table," says committee co-chair Michelle Black, one of the original four mothers. As a result, the congregation hired a family educator to implement such programs as Katan Gadol, featuring play, songs, stories, and Shabbat snacks for parents and children ranging from 15 months to age 2½; Tikkun for Tots, a social action program for parents and their children; the 10-week course "Parenting through a Jewish Lens" co-sponsored by the local federation; and supervised babysitting during Friday night services, among others.

With the addition of Fall Family Funfest, a working moms program, and group study with the rabbi and cantor, something's now going on every weekend at TBE for families with young children. "There is a general buzz in and outside the temple about our programs for young families," Black says, "and it's had a substantial impact on membership."

Over the past year, of the 97 new families who have joined the congregation, 40 of them are families with young children, and more are likely to become temple members as their tots enter kindergarten.

In 2010, having learned from several young couples that the few Jewish daycare facilities nearby had waiting lists, Margie Zeskind, director of early childhood education at Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach, approached the board of the 800-family congregation with a proposal.

Since the early 1950s the congregation had been home to the Foundation School, a preschool program for ages 2 to 5. Zeskind believed TBS needed to take the Foundation School in a new direction. "If you get young Jewish families into infant care, then they become a part of a Jewish community right from the start," she told the board. "If these families have to find child-care outside the Jewish world, we may never get them back. We have an opportunity to nurture their Judaism."

She proposed adding an infant/childcare center to the Foundation School, and in 2011 the board agreed. Two schoolrooms were converted to serve the new population of children 8 weeks old to toddler, and this September the center opened along with the Foundation School.

This year the school/center's combined enrollment of 210 children exceeds last year's by more than 10%, and the center's eight-baby "infant room" is filled. Young moms and dads who enroll a child in the center receive free temple membership. Zeskind expects that in time, they, like the Foundation School parents, will become temple board members and committee chairs. For now, she says, "The young families are thrilled. They tell me, 'Thank you for giving us a Jewish place for our baby.'"

Three years ago, when Rabbi Scott Weiner became senior rabbi of 550-family Temple Israel of New Rochelle, New York, he and his wife could not find full-time childcare in a Jewish setting, a situation also faced by other temple families with young children.

Temple leaders conducted a study to determine the feasibility of opening a full-time Jewish early childhood center and how it might best function. "The recommendation was to shut down the existing part-time preschool for ages 2 to 5, and do something different and quite bold," says Nancy Bossov, who first served as an early childhood consultant and is now director of Temple Israel early childhood education and the Kehillah School for Early Learning.

In 2011 the congregation opened the Kehillah School for ages 6 weeks to pre-kindergarten—constituting the only full-time, year-round Jewish daycare center in the heavily Jewish populated areas of Westchester County and Manhattan. The curriculum for all ages revolves around a Jewish theme-of-the-month, anything from tikkun olam to shalom bayit; learning continues outside of school with monthly distribution of a CD of theme-based Jewish stories for home listening, monthly thematic family events, and Tot Shabbat. Thirty-eight students attended the inaugural school year, and this year the number is up to 77. To engage the young families, Temple Israel provides complimentary membership to parents whose children are in school full-time and a reduced rate to families with part-time students. Between September 2011, when the school opened, and September 2012, 40 new families have become temple affiliates.

How can your congregation best engage today's families with young children? Here are eight key guidelines:

  1. Consider establishing a full-time early education/preschool/daycare program as a gateway into the congregation. Mary Lou Allen, an early childhood educator/infant/toddler specialist who consults on training and curriculum assessment, says that such programs offer congregations a "window of opportunity" to connect with young Jewish parents. If finances are an issue for prospective parents, she suggests that congregations consider tuition discounts. Allen also recommends providing the incentive of free membership to parents of children in early childhood programs. "It's value-added," she says, "and reinforces the idea that you don't have to wait until the child is ready for bar/bat mitzvah study to join the temple."

  2. Use "small" to your advantage. That's the philosophy of Beth Shir Shalom, a 250-family congregation in Santa Monica, California that runs a full-day early childhood center. While there is no shortage of similar and larger programs within a half-hour's drive of the temple, Beth Shir Shalom's center serves 80 children-its maximum capacity. Director Marsha Newstat attributes the success to a variety of factors: new Baby and Me prenatal classes, a lowered enrollment age of 18 months, a new kindergarten program, an educational philosophy that encourages imagination and creativity, being accredited on the website of the National Association for the Education of Young Children—the "gold standard in the field," running a popular Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony at a local promenade, welcoming the larger community's interfaith and multi-racial families, integrating Judaism well into the curriculum—and using the congregation's small size to advantage. Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels and Cantorial Soloist Diane Rose, who lead a weekly Tot Shabbat, have become familiar faces to the children.

    "The little kids walk in the halls and recognize the rabbi. They yell, 'Hi, rabbi!' I love that," Newstat says.

    About 60% of enrolled families are members, who receive an 18% tuition discount. And 80% of non-members become temple members.

  3. Educate and inspire your temple Board. Cathy Rolland, director of the URJ's early childhood education faculty, says that "when you raise board member awareness about the vital role of early childhood initiatives in engaging young families and helping to grow the next generation of Jews in your community, the board is much more likely to support critical initiatives." Rolland recommends appointing a liaison from the board or executive committee to facilitate this process.

    Allen adds that "a preschool should be viewed as part of the congregation rather than as a separate entity, as this enables the synagogue staff to build relationships with parents through clergy visits and contact with the religious school director."

  4. Quality is key. Extensive research on what young families want from early childhood education shows that the most important factor is offering a quality program, Rolland says. Congregational preschool and early engagement programs are not just competing within the Jewish world—with each other and/or Jewish community centers—but with an entire world of excellence in early childhood education/engagement. "If you're not offering something outstanding, young families will go elsewhere," she says.

  5. Meet young families where they are outside the congregational walls. For example, 125 families, about 80% temple members, are participating in Temple Israel of New Rochelle's PJ Library subscription program, whereby (thanks to the Harold Grinspoon Foundation) children ages 6 months to 8 years receive free, age-appropriate Jewish books and music. The congregation hosted two events for subscribing PJ Library families, including a "pajama party" at which 150 parents and children decorated their own pillowcases and learned about Jewish bedtime rituals. "The PJ Library program makes the congregation a more welcoming place for these families," Associate Rabbi Beth Nichols says.

    To encourage young families to participate in such innovative programs, Rolland suggests that every congregation enlist its own "pied piper" who can reach out through personal connections and/or social media. "Ideally," she says, "the person should be of the same demographic as the young parents. If you don't know of anyone within the congregation, reach out beyond your temple community—view it as a growth opportunity to bring someone new into your orbit."

    Rolland also stresses the importance of making sure your early childhood initiatives are highlighted-with good positioning and excellent photography on your website and Facebook pages. "Today's young families expect high quality, up-to-date information at all times," she says.

  6. Focus on your clients. "Always consider who your clients are, their needs now, what their needs may look like two to five years ahead, and how your programs can serve them," says Nancy Bossov. For example, recognize that "we can no longer just think of the traditional nuclear family; instead, we have to consider a diversity of families, including single-parent families, same-sex families, interreligious families, interracial families, and dual-parent working families, all of whose needs are very different. If a congregation's educational program cannot serve this broader population, it becomes obsolete."

  7. Investigate grants. While grant funding is not currently available in all localities, Cathy Rolland notes that some congregations have secured grants to grow their early childhood initiatives. Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetss, for example, received a CJP / Greater Boston Jewish Federation 2012-13 innovation grant for Friday evening Shabbat programming engaging families with young children.

  8. Ask the Reform Movement. You can consult with Cathy Rolland. The Union for Reform Judaism is also offering two early engagement Communities of Practice to be launched in January 2013, one for congregations with preschools and the other for congregations that do not have preschools. To learn more, contact Cathy Rolland. If your congregation is considering providing full-time childcare, make use of the feasibility study, "Market Analysis Guidelines for Congregational Child Care Centers, which guides you through the steps to take and can be amended as needed. To learn more about early childhood engagement, watch the URJ's webinars. To exchange ideas with other early childhood professionals committed to strengthening young families' ties to Reform Judaism, join the Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism (ECE-RJ) or email In addition, the Union offers incubator grants of up to $5,000/year for innovative pilot programming, such as the edible container garden Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh created in 2011 to engage existing and prospective members. Congregational volunteers of all ages worked in the garden; preschool children harvested, cooked, and ate the produce; and garden harvests were donated to Meals on Wheels. That year, 59 new members joined the congregation, a 15% increase over the average of the last five years.

If, with the Reform Movement's help, your congregation can find its path to successful engagement of young families, you may reap the same rewards.

—Barbara Pash, a freelance writer in Baltimore and member of Har Sinai Congregation


Union for Reform Judaism.