Jim Keen is the author of the book Inside Intermarriage: A Christian Partner's Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press). He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.
Why We Chose a Jewish Early-Childhood Center for Our Children
When my first daughter was born, it didn't take long for my wife to start thinking about where to send her to childcare. To tell the truth, the issue caught me off guard. After all, Gabby was only a year old. I hadn't even considered that my little girl would have to spend time in some strange place without Bonnie or me to look after her.
Even though I was scared just thinking about it, I nonetheless wanted to help with the decision as to where our daughter would begin to socialize with other kids. Where she would get her first little bits of schooling. Where she would learn to share. Where she would eat her graham crackers. Where she would make new friends. And, of course, where she would have her feelings hurt when another kid stole her pink plastic horse. It was an important decision.
So, Bonnie and I started looking at the different childcare centers around town. Some we had heard great things about (you know, the ones with a three-year waiting list), and some we had heard described with a few unflattering remarks. Then there was the Jewish Community Center (JCC). As the Christian parent in our interfaith family, I was naturally a little concerned when my Jewish wife brought up the idea of sending our daughter to the JCC's Early Childhood Center. Sure, it had a remarkable reputation. Still, I was a little apprehensive about sending Gabby to some place where, as I thought, she would learn nothing but Hebrew. I wanted her to have a "normal" childcare experience.
"You will look into it with me, right?" Bonnie had asked.
"Honey, I don't know."
"Everyone says they have excellent teachers there."
"I know, but will she learn about stuff other than Israel?"
As it turned out, the JCC taught kids a lot about Israel and Judaism. They also taught myriad non-Jewish subjects. As we looked at it in depth, the JCC had everything we were searching for in a childcare center: great teachers, a wonderful director and staff, a spacious playground for sunny days, a big gymnasium for rainy days, fun classrooms where the children could play and learn, and best of all, a warm, welcoming atmosphere.
The decision became easy. Gabby would begin her school career in the Bunny Room of the JCC's Early Childhood Center. I couldn't wait for her to start.
As time went on, my little girl became a big girl at the JCC. She was learning a lot. As it turned out, I was learning a lot, too. Year after year, we continued to register Gabby at the JCC. Why? Because it offered so much more than I could have ever imagined.
One of the biggest reasons was that it gave us a sense of community. The JCC was not just for kids. We parents were a welcomed part of the center, as well. My wife and I not only got a feeling of belonging, but also a chance to be involved. Bonnie began serving on the board of the JCC. It was a great opportunity to have a say in our children's education. I got to volunteer at various events, including fundraisers, Shabbat (Sabbath) dinners, and other holiday functions. I've even been known to serve ice cream at Family Fun Night. They actually expected me to scoop more than I ate. Where else could you find this much trust?
This community did not stop there. The seniors in our area were extremely active at the JCC--participating in many of the Early Childhood Center's holiday parties and events. After a while, we got to know many wonderful and intriguing people of all generations and backgrounds. There was a special bond that we shared, as we were all part of this center.
The JCC's special events provided an opportunity to meet other families with whom we have a lot in common. Many were interfaith families, just like we were. It was reassuring to have friends who faced similar issues. However, as alike as some of our backgrounds were, there were many families that came from all over the world. We found it just as much fun to develop friendships with families from Russia, Japan, Sweden, Israel, India, and other reaches of the globe. Even while most families at the JCC were Jewish, the center welcomed people of all faiths. Friendly and enlightening--what more could we have asked for?
The JCC's frequent special functions also provided a much-needed chance to celebrate Judaism with our community. It was fun to get on the phone and call up friends and ask, "Are you going to the Sukkot dinner tomorrow night?" And while we taught Gabby Judaism in the home, these functions reinforced her Jewish education by creating wonderful memories for her. In addition, during the day, when she was in class, the teachers would read stories and create fun projects for whatever holiday was approaching. During Yom Kippur, for example, Gabby learned all about Jonah and the whale and painted a picture of Jonah inside the whale's stomach--something I knew about from my own Sunday school days. Every Friday, the kids celebrated Shabbat with a song leader and baked challah to take home for dinner. Every Monday morning, they had a Havdalah (end of Sabbath) service.
For Gabby, aspects of her Jewish culture and faith were now starting to click. In fact, one Friday afternoon as I picked Gabby up at school, she began singing "Shabbat Shalom--Hey!" Later that evening, as Bonnie lit the candles, Gabby began reciting the blessing. Bonnie and I exchanged a surprised look. Sure, we had said it on many Friday evenings before, but now, with the JCC reinforcing it at school, she was actually learning the Sabbath prayers at one and a half years old.
I was struck by how beautiful it was that she had memorized these religious blessings. Then I thought, "This is it. She really is learning Judaism. Wow." Sure, we gave her a Hebrew name, but she really didn't have to do anything for that. This was Gabby taking an active role in her own religious education. I didn't do any second-guessing about the decision that Bonnie and I had made to raise her Jewish. But it was like watching this seed that we had planted bloom into a flower.
Today, Gabby is a graduate of the JCC program and a full-blown kindergartner. She continues to attend all the after-school functions with us, and helps her little sister, Molly--who is a two year old in the Lamb Room--with all the ins and outs of being a JCC pre-schooler.
As an interfaith family raising our children Jewish, we're never quite sure if we're sending a consistent message to our kids. Does my being Christian confuse them? I'm sure it does, to a point. But while I'll continue to be a Protestant and to teach my children about my religion, I will always find ways to reinforce their Judaism. This is one area where we find the JCC to be of the most benefit. The center's Early Childhood Program provides that sense of Jewish culture, community, religion and life that other schools cannot.
Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars.