For more on Jewish early childhood education, see "Early Engagement Crucial for Unaffiliated Families."
When Brian Seely and his husband Tim Seely adopted their son Gabe, they agreed to give him a Jewish education.
But they didn’t expect that education to start when the boy was only 11 months old.
Last January, while scrambling to find full-time child care, the Pelham couple stumbled upon Temple Israel of New Rochelle’s Kehillah program. From the moment Gabe crawled off to join his newfound friends there, the family felt embraced by the community, and they soon became regulars at the temple’s monthly Tot Shabbat.
For Brian, who grew up in a Reform congregation in Buffalo, the New Rochelle temple, which is Reform, feels “familiar.” Tim, who is Catholic, likes how welcoming the temple is. And both are thrilled with how much Gabe, now 2, is learning.
“Gabe’s been exploding with knowledge, and I don’t think if either of us were home with him full time we could teach half of what’s he’s learning at Kehillah,” Brian said.
Launched in September 2011 with 38 children, Kehillah (Hebrew for “community”) is one of just a handful of Jewish child care programs in the New York area — indeed, in the entire country — offering year-round, full-time care for infants as well as preschool-age children.
The program, a unique partnership between the 530-family temple and Bright Horizons, a for-profit chain of day care centers, is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and currently enrolls 81 children, about 80 percent of them Jewish. The brainchild of Temple Israel’s Rabbi Scott Weiner, Kehillah aims not only to offer child care and an integrated Jewish-secular curriculum, but to bring new parents into the temple community at a life stage when they are eager to form friendships and to explore what role religious traditions will have in the lives of their families.
“When we decided to do infant care, it was with the understanding that if we wait until the child is 2 years old, the parents already have their friends and family patterns down — and temple won’t be a part of it,” explained Nancy Bossov, Kehillah’s director.
Kehillah families are entitled to free temple membership until their oldest child is in elementary school, at which point they can join at a discounted rate.
For working parents, the model is a dramatic — and welcome — departure from the typical Jewish nursery school that starts at age 2 or 3, runs just part of the day and closes for all the Jewish holidays. (Kehillah closes only for major holidays like Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and the first day of Passover).
The new program is drawing families from all over Westchester and is attracting the attention of various major Jewish institutions, including UJA-Federation of New York, Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Jewish Child Care Association. The groups recently met with Bright Horizons’ CEO and Temple Israel/Kehillah leaders to discuss possibilities for making Jewish day care more widely available both in New York and elsewhere.
“This is something fundamental to people’s work lives, and we have known it’s a need,” said Melanie Schneider. She staffs the Beginning Jewish Families Task Force of the federation’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, which is teaming up with the federation’s Caring Commission to explore ways they might encourage the creation of more child care programs.
Still in exploratory phases, the federation commissions are currently talking with area synagogues and other Jewish institutions that are considering opening full-time child care programs. In particular, they are looking at the possibility of commissioning Bright Horizons to help local Jewish institutions determine startup costs and whether there is enough of a market to make such programs viable.
URJ is collaborating with UJA-Federation in local outreach to Reform congregations and is also in conversation with Reform temples throughout the country that are considering opening day care facilities, possibly in partnership with Bright Horizons.
Currently one other Reform congregation, Temple Israel in San Francisco, runs a child care program with Bright Horizons.
For now, Bright Horizons is the only company with whom the Jewish organizations are talking; organization officials say the company is uniquely appealing because of its emerging track record of experience and relationships with the Jewish community.
The interest in Jewish day care comes at a time when many part-time Jewish early childhood programs — which for decades subsidized other operations at synagogues and JCCS — are struggling financially and enrollment-wise.
According to Cathy Rolland, a member of the early childhood faculty at the URJ, the recession has pushed many families, particularly those in which one parent is unemployed, to delay nursery school or even skip it altogether. Meanwhile, the advent of government-funded universal pre-K programs for 4-year-olds has created a tuition-free alternative for many families.
The Jewish preschool field is also experiencing a leadership crisis, with many longtime directors aging or retiring.
Adding to the challenges, the Jewish early childhood sector, unlike Jewish day schools and camps, lacks a strong national advocacy group and has been unable to garner significant or sustained attention from major philanthropists.
The Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative, an effort launched by the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish life, closed last year. Meanwhile, neither the Jim Joseph Foundation nor Avi Chai Foundation — the two largest national supporters of Jewish education, both of which have invested millions in overnight camps and day schools — focus on early childhood. While Jim Joseph has supported a leadership development program for preschool directors and second-tier professionals, the foundation’s recently released summary report indicated that early childhood programs accounted for only 8 percent of its spending.
Those interested in creating more programs, like New Rochelle’s Kehillah, say the full-time model has the potential to revitalize the field — and perhaps even increase the low birth rate among non-Orthodox Jews — by easing the burdens of Jewish working parents.
It has certainly helped turn around Temple Israel of New Rochelle’s early childhood program, which had been steadily shrinking before Kehillah launched.
Set on a large, leafy suburban campus, Temple Israel of New Rochelle has a sprawling building whose modern 1960s architecture evokes “Mad Men.”
The temple, one of more than 50 designed by architect Percival Goodman, had 1,500 families at its peak, and has ample space for Kehillah’s young participants to wander: in addition to its own classrooms, small gym and playground, Kehillah, housed in a wing renovated the summer before the program’s launch, has access to the temple’s sanctuary, ballrooms, library, multipurpose room and courtyard.
Classrooms are bright, with windows onto the outside and the corridors, and the classroom doorways each have two colorful mezuzahs: one at adult height and one at child height. The children are grouped according to age, with each group identified by a Hebrew name: the infants are K’tahneem (Hebrew for “little ones”), the toddlers are Chalootzeem (pioneers) and Boneem (builders), and the oldest preschoolers are Geshareem (bridges).
Each room has a sign identifying its purpose in English, Hebrew, Hebrew transliteration and Braille. The signs also bear the words “Bright Horizons” and “Kehillah,” along with the logos of each.
The program is a sort-of intercultural marriage between the 105-year-old Reform temple and the 26-year-old publicly traded company, which has 775 child-care centers in six countries.
Based in Watertown, Mass., Bright Horizons, which partners with a variety of other secular institutions and employers, has its own curriculum, management/human resources practices and financial systems in place, along with expertise in the myriad government regulations with which child care centers must comply. It also handles many of the administrative and number-crunching burdens of operating a child care center.
Temple officials say having Bright Horizons as a partner made it much easier to launch the program. However, both sides note that the relationship has not been without its tensions.
“It’s a work in progress, but I think it’s working well,” said David Lissey, Bright Horizons’ CEO.
Beverly Hoffmann, a Temple Israel board member who chairs the early childhood committee said, the two “have different cultures: independent temples don’t always have systems in place, and aren’t as structured.”
One initial challenge was the fact that Bright Horizons (the employer of everyone at Kehillah but Bossov) had a lower pay scale than Temple Israel, although that was partially offset by its full benefits package.
Also difficult: the need to tweak the existing curriculum to integrate Judaism and to find staff knowledgeable about, or willing to learn about Judaism.
“Our costs are higher than at other Bright Horizons centers, and the reasons have to do with Judaism,” Hoffmann said, noting that Kehillah’s teachers require extra professional development and the program serves only kosher food.
Indeed, the program has been an expensive proposition for all involved.
Temple Israel has invested $2 million in the program, although it is hoping to recoup at least some of that money through tuition and, ultimately, throuhg increased membership numbers.
Monthly tuition to enroll a child for five 10-hour days per week ranges from $1,560 for preschoolers to $2,055 for infants and young toddlers. Shorter days and three-day schedules are available for less money; parents can also opt for 12-hour days, for more money.
At Kehillah, the Jewish atmosphere is pervasive, with signs identifying the Hebrew names for seemingly everything. Hebrew music plays constantly and colorful plush Torah scrolls are found in every room.
Much of the preschool curriculum is built around the weekly Torah portion, and the Gesharim (5- and 6-year-olds) studied a plague each week in the 10 weeks leading up to Passover. That unit that integrated math and science as well as Judaic studies.
The children celebrate Shabbat together each Friday morning on the carpeted floor of the chapel, gathering around Rabbi Weiner who lets them touch the Torah scroll.
Shabbat has had a huge impact on the 2-year-old daughter of Peter Gimbel; at her request the family goes to the temple’s Saturday morning Tot Shabbat each month, even though Gimbel doesn’t identify as Jewish (his grandfather was Jewish) and his wife “is culturally Jewish but didn’t grow up going to temple or anything like that.”
When the family moved to Westchester last fall and opted for Kehillah, they were drawn primarily by the facilities and the community feel.
“One thing we didn’t expect was how much our daughter was going to like Shabbat on Fridays,” Gimbel said, adding that she “looks forward to that all week. She’s always singing the songs. It’s kind of like every day is Shabbat for her.”
Michele Boyum, an elementary school teacher who has two children at Kehillah — 5-year-old Lily and 15-month-old Jacob — found out about the program through the mother of a friend of a friend.
“The facility’s really nice,” she said. “A lot of daycares have the kids stay in the same room all the time. This is so great, because they go to the gym, the temple, outside.”
Before enrolling her daughter at Kehillah, Boyum, who grew up on Long Island, hadn’t been to temple since her own bat mitzvah. Now, she and her husband call Lily “the mini-rabbi,” because she brings home so much Jewish knowledge. Lily is also eager to practice her newly acquired Hebrew vocabulary on her father’s Israeli parents.
As for Jacob, “the second word he ever knew was ‘challah,’” Boyum said.
“It’s definitely made us part of that community,” she said of Kehillah. “We’ve made friends through it, we go to Tot Shabbat. … This has become our temple.”