Very Early Childhood Education
Tue, 08/23/2011
Associate Editor
Shabbat at Kehillah: “not just warehousing” children.
Shabbat at Kehillah: “not just warehousing” children.

In just a year, Matt Baumoel has gone from being the hard-core atheist who “shunned” all things Jewish to serving as the president of a Reform temple parents’ association. In fact, his “baffled” longtime friends now jokingly refer to him as “Super Jew.”

The cause of the transformation? His 3-year-old daughter’s nursery school.

While researching various school options, most of them non-Jewish, for her, Baumoel and his wife — who are both Jewish but were raised in non-practicing homes — visited the Temple Israel of New Rochelle Early Childhood Center. Both were immediately impressed by “how the teachers are all about the kids” and how “warm and nurturing” it was, he said, adding, “It’s been really good for me.”

This fall, the program has a new name: Kehillah (Hebrew for “community”). And it is expanding to offer year-round care for children as young as 6 weeks old, hours that run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and flexible scheduling — options available in very few New York-area Jewish early childhood programs, especially ones based in synagogues. The more inclusive sounding name is part of the new approach.

Among the goals of the revamped Kehillah, which is open to Jewish and gentile children of all backgrounds, is to reach, and hopefully transform the lives of, more people like Matt Baumoel — and their children.

“This will increase our membership because it will bring a lot more people through our doors,” said Rabbi Scott Weiner (no relation to this reporter), who has been the 550-family temple’s senior rabbi since 2009. “But really what we’re hoping is that it will provide a stronger base. We’re starting at 6 weeks, whereas most Jewish programs don’t start until 2 years old. Having families engaged younger will really just increase what we’re already doing, just make it stronger.”

The leaders of Temple Israel of New Rochelle are not alone in recognizing the connection between improved infant-toddler programming — at ever-earlier ages — and outreach to unaffiliated families.

Last year, the newly established “Beginning Families Task Force” at UJA-Federation of New York launched the “Kveller” website to reach out to new parents. It also funded several pilot outreach projects in Brownstone Brooklyn, including a baby-toddler play space at a Jewish day school, a Russian-Hebrew toddler music class, and programs for expectant parents.

And the Jewish Education Project (formerly the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York) has ramped up its work in early childhood education, in part by launching Gateways to Engagement, an effort to help make early-childhood centers and their host institutions “more welcoming and engaging entryways to Jewish life for families with young children.”

Nancy Bossov, Kehillah’s director and a longtime professional in the field of Jewish early childhood education said, “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.

“The goal is that when they come in with an infant, the temple and the people there will become a regular part of their lives and their social patterns,” she added.

Another factor in the push to offer Jewish programs for younger children is that, with the advent of state-funded universal pre-K programs, many children now begin public school at age 4.

Bossov, the former early childhood director for New York’s BJE, has also directed the early childhood education department at the Union for Reform Judaism.

With a newly renovated facility, Kehillah is licensed to accommodate 71 children at any one time, and because many children will attend part-time, the program expects to enroll more than 100. So far 38 are registered, but temple officials are confident that the program will fill up relatively quickly once it is running and the word gets out.

According to Rabbi Weiner, whose two daughters both attend Kehillah, New Rochelle has attracted growing numbers of young families in recent years, in part because it is more affordable than many other areas of Westchester County.

“There are a lot more two-working-parent families moving into this area who are choosing not to have nannies and are looking for other types of options,” he said.

In the year before deciding to launch Kehillah, “we were constantly getting calls from people saying ‘Your program sounds great, but I need something full-time,’” he noted.

Bossov emphasized that whereas “for many congregations, the school is ‘over there,’ an extra something,” Kehillah is “completely integrated” into the workings of Temple Israel of New Rochelle.

Parents enrolling an infant or toddler are automatically given free membership in the congregation,” she said, and families that also have older children get “financial incentives for membership.”

Bossov said that because she and Rabbi Weiner both have experience working in Jewish camps and youth groups, they are integrating elements of camp — sing-alongs, giving each classroom a Hebrew name, and a general sense of fun — into the school.

Just don’t call it “day care.”

“I get a shiver every time people talk about day care,” Bossov said. “We don’t take care of days; we take care of children and we’re not just warehousing them. We’re looking to enrich them and give them a really strong foundation for the rest of their lives.”

It’s a foundation Matt Baumoel is happy his kids are getting.

“I spent my life being ignorant because I didn’t have a Jewish [educational] background,” he said. “As my kids started asking questions I couldn’t answer, I got a little frustrated.”

Which is not to say his transition from anti-religious to at least being open to learning more about Jewish history and traditions has been completely smooth.

Because his daughter’s first two months of school last year coincided with the High Holy Days, he struggled with the decision at first. “I kept jokingly threatening to pull her out, as I got these weekly notes that they were doing different religious things,” he recalled.