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