Toddlers as Teachers?

By Martha Kimes


Jewish preschools build Jewish identities. And not just for the children who attend– often, for their parents as well. Jewish preschools, especially those that reach out to interfaith families, tend to motivate parents towards integrating Jewish practices into their homes and becoming more active in the Jewish community.

When Doug and Francine Sumner married in 1992, Doug understood that Francine’s Jewish heritage was an important part of her identity. They committed to raising their children as Jews, despite his devout Christian background. Doug remains a spiritual and observant Christian, but he is very involved in his children’s Jewish education and practice, and describes himself as “a Jewish father and a Christian man.”

Doug Sumner is not Jewish, but he and his Jewish wife Francine are raising their three children, Gabrielle, 10, Zachary, 6, and Jacob, 12, as Jews. Francine says of Jacob’s enrollment in Jewish preschool 10 years ago: “It’s where I learned my Judaism.”

Francine was raised culturally, but not religiously, Jewish. Before enrolling their oldest son in a Jewish preschool 10 years ago, “I knew what Passover was, but I didn’t even know that there was a Sh’ma,” she explained. From her son’s preschool teachers, she began to discover and appreciate Jewish rituals and traditions. “It’s where I learned my Judaism.”

Now, her family has incorporated Judaism into many aspects of their lives. As active members of Temple Chai in Phoenix, Ariz., they attend Shabbat services regularly, and on the occasions that Francine can’t go, Doug takes the children himself. Francine sat on the temple’s board of directors for years. Their children attend Hebrew school and participate in the temple’s youth group. And Francine is now also a teacher at the Temple Chai Childhood Center, educating a new crop of young families about Judaism.

The Sumners are hardly the only interfaith family that has forged a deeper connection to Judaism after choosing to send their children to a Jewish preschool. Paul and Michelle Tran agreed before marriage that their children would be raised Jewish and that they would have a Jewish home, although he is not Jewish. When it came time to make a decision about their children’s education, Jewish preschool just seemed right– Michelle knew that others there would share the same values, with a focus on family and community, and she believed that the children would receive a higher quality education. Paul and Michelle are very involved at their children’s preschool: she is a room parent, and both can be spotted front and center at most school events. Paul enthusiastically participates in school activities, because, as Michelle puts it, “Even though he’s not Jewish, he’s part of the family too, and we’re a Jewish family.”

Although their connection to their children’s Jewish preschool hasn’t necessarily increased their religious observance, it has drawn the Trans to become more involved in the Jewish community. Now that their kids are in school, “anything that’s Jewish out there, we go to,” she reported, including the preschool’s monthly Tot Shabbat (Sabbath) services, temple programs, and community holiday events.

These stories of increased involvement are echoed by many other interfaith families who send their children to Jewish preschools. In her years as director of the Temple Chai Childhood Center in Phoenix (which currently has a 40 percent enrollment of interfaith families, and 10 percent who are non-Jewish), Debbie Popiel White has seen countless families who have begun to celebrate Shabbat because of their children, many of whom bring home a freshly-baked challah from school each Friday afternoon.

“I’ve learned a lot about Judaism, especially about the different holidays, through the kids,” said Joe Miller, whose sons attend a Jewish preschool. “The things that they bring home from school have often spurred some important conversations in our home about appreciating differences between people and respecting the beliefs of others.”

Respecting diversity among families is clearly a key to attracting interfaith families. Nancy Bossov, now Director of Early Childhood Education for the Union for Reform Judaism, used to be the director of a Jewish preschool. “I liked to envision my culturally diverse population as a ‘mini UN’,” she said. “It was a controlled environment where we were able to really and truly have a community where everyone was engaged in the values and morals and ethics of Jewish life. It didn’t matter if you went to church on Sunday or the mosque on Friday.” Commenting on the numerous children of different religions who attended her school, Nancy said that, because of their exposure to Jewish values and ideas, “I think they have a respect, understanding, and affection for Judaism that will be with them the rest of their lives.”

In this tradition, Francine Sumner is trying to do for other people what her son’s preschool did for her own family. Working together with Popiel White at Temple Chai, she facilitates “experience workshops” aimed at introducing Jewish traditions to preschoolers’ families. “A lot of parents are afraid of these rituals and traditions,” she said. The workshops, where the parents have done everything from baking challah and making candlesticks to building a sukkah and making mezuzahs, are aimed at getting parents involved and teaching them the basics of Judaism in an engaging and welcoming atmosphere. Perhaps, like Francine, some of these parents will become teachers of the next generation of Jewish preschoolers.



About Martha Kimes

Martha Kimes is an attorney and writer who lives in Phoenix, Ariz. Her first book, Ivy Briefs: A Privileged And Confidential Law School Story, was published in May 2007.