Long before we were married, my husband and I made the decision to raise our children Jewish. He, a non-practicing Catholic, and I, a Conservative Jew, agreed that having one religion in the home would be the best choice for our then non-existent family.
Fast forward many years later. Our sons are now 4 ½ and 1 ½. We've created a Reform Jewish home in which we celebrate everything from Shabbat (the Sabbath) to Hanukkah to Passover and many of the other holidays in between. Because our boys are fairly young, their exposure and learning about Judaism has been limited to what we have done in our home or in the homes of extended family and friends.
When it was time for us to begin thinking about sending our oldest son to preschool, we were faced with many choices. What would be the best learning environment? What level of education do the teachers have? What is the class size? What is the curriculum? And the list goes on… We began visiting preschools around our area, including our local Jewish community center (JCC). Among all the preschools we saw lots of happy children, walls adorned with colorful art projects, plenty of toys, creative art centers, and fun outdoor play areas.
However, what we saw and learned about at the JCC kept bringing us back for more. In addition to the many non-Jewish-focused learning activities, we saw children doing many Jewish-focused activities including saying the barucha (blessing) before they ate snack and a kosher lunch, doing art projects that incorporated things like the Israeli flag and learning about Jewish holidays. In talking with the director, we learned in detail about the Jewish curriculum that is embedded in the program. We also learned about the make-up of the children that attend. It surprised us that only 50 percent of the families enrolled have two Jewish parents. 34 percent of the families are not Jewish. 16 percent of the families are intermarried. Even more interesting, not all of the teachers that are teaching Jewish content are Jewish.
For us, these were important statistics. We wanted to make sure our son would be welcome within the Jewish Community Center preschool. Since it is the JCC, it follows certain rules of Orthodoxy, in that it is a kosher facility, is closed on all Jewish holidays, closes early on Friday for Shabbat, etc. In addition, the preschool itself teaches the children from the Conservative to Modern Orthodox viewpoint when it comes to holidays and customs. As an interfaith couple, we know that the majority of Orthodox Jews do not accept intermarriage, and we wanted to make sure our son would be welcome in this environment. The statistics made us feel comfortable that he would.
My husband and I went home and thought things over. After much deliberation of the pros (we liked the facility, the staff was friendly, the Jewish program would be a great starting point) and cons (it wasn't the most convenient in terms of location for us, would the Jewish curriculum really have that much of an impact on a 3 year-old?), we decided to sign him up. (Will his college choice be this difficult??)
We have not regretted it one bit. Our son is thriving in his preschool and he absolutely loves it. In addition to learning non-Judaic content, he has learned in detail about every holiday on the Jewish calendar, including ones that we have never celebrated or discussed at home. In the fall, he came home singing Rosh Hashanah songs and telling us the Hebrew words for apple and honey (which I had to look up to verify because I didn't know them!). In the winter, he participated in a Hanukkah program, made latkes and played dreidel games. In the spring, they hold a children's seder and he learns all about Pesach (Passover). Every Friday they celebrate Shabbat with challah, candles and grape juice, and each Monday they hold a mini-Havdalah in the classroom. During Sukkot, my son even asked me, "Why don't we have a sukkah?"
His learning about these things in preschool has given my husband and me the extra push to incorporate these holidays into our home. It has helped us to follow through with the commitment we made to raise our children Jewish. It has also helped to introduce Judaism to our youngest son, who is not yet in preschool. Also important, it has been a great learning experience for my husband, who is very comfortable learning about and celebrating the Jewish holidays. He has not felt a spiritual connection with his Catholic upbringing for a number of years and is slowly starting to connect with the tenets of Reform Judaism.
Attending a Jewish preschool has helped our son to understand that we (and some of his friends) celebrate the same things he is learning about and why it is that we celebrate them. In our home as a family, we now celebrate Shabbat by lighting candles and having challah; Hanukkah by lighting the menorah, playing dreidel and exchanging gifts; and Passover by attending seders--the way our son learned in school. This has helped to show him the connection between our world at home and his world at school.
As our son enters public school next year, we hope that his Jewish preschool has given him a good foundation which he will continue to build upon as he grows. We know that it has been a wonderful experience for my husband and me.