Our Stories

Relationships, Relationships, Relationships: the Core of Early Childhood Education at Jewish LearningWorks

By Ellen Brosbe, Former Jewish LearningWorks Staff

יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָהאוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר
Make yourself a teacher, find yourself a friend.

Pirkei Avot 1:6

In 2002 after tremendously rewarding years working closely with the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), now Jewish LearningWorks, and the Jewish Family Education Project, I was approached to work in collaboration with the Jewish early childhood schools of the west bay from Santa Rosa to Sunnyvale. Thus began a satisfying return to my strong early childhood graduate training and background to build upon the work of previous BJE Early Childhood Education (ECE) staff.

My predecessors, Rachel Tal and Avital Plan, supported the ECE leaders offering impactful professional development including an annual Early Childhood conference attended by almost 200 hundred teachers and directors.

As part of the BJE’s mission to bring best practices to our ECE community, Dr. Debbie Findling asked me to lead a group of directors to visit the Reggio inspired schools of St. Louis. The inspiration of the schools of Reggio Emilia have an impact on the work of Jewish early childhood leaders to this day.

Collaborating with Janet Harris, at the time director of the Jewish Community Center, Marin, to create an expansion of a professional development program, Jewish Everyday Moments in School (JEMS). JEMS offered regional communities of practice held in the Peninsula, San Francisco, and Marin counties. At the enriching retreats, teachers from the smallest congregational and Chabad schools to the largest Jewish Community Center sites were able to tackle the practical, challenging, professional and personal issues faced in the Jewish early childhood profession (again, as Dr. Debbie Findling wrote, were paid less than pizza delivery workers.)

Our monthly ECE directors’ Mifgash meetings provided friendship and support, and collaboration among directors. Despite the physical distance from our Sonoma and Sunnyvale sites, Mifgash became a monthly professional model at the BJE, long before remote Zoom options made meetings more accessible. Directors, as with JEMS participants, wrestled with big questions ranging from staffing, compensation, fundraising, working with one’s host institution, as well as sensitive issues around the ongoing needs of parents and young children.

Each year the BJE submitted grant proposals to Jewish Community Federation each year to fund the early childhood department.

The broader Jewish community understood that our Early Childhood Centers serve the whole family, not just the child. Consequently, many teachers needed more training in Jewish family education. Expanding the depth of learning for directors and their staff coincided with the funding of the Gratz college certificate in early childhood education, a demanding, high level, two year program. The Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative (JECEI) created in 2004 offered a nation-wide accreditation program. At this time, Denise Moyes Schnur brought her expertise, knowledge, and relationship building to the broader, west bay Jewish ECE community.

In 2007 the Focus on Excellence tool for assessing quality in Jewish early childhood education was created with broad participation of ECE leadership. Schools undertook in depth self-evaluation using the tool to make improvements to various aspects of their schools.

The creation of the Jewish Community Federation’s Early Childhood Education Initiative in 2009 brought forth a new era in advocacy, family engagement, and professional development. The Jewish Resource Specialist program was one of the outcomes of this exciting new initiative. Throughout my tenure at Jewish LearningWorks (JLW) it was clear that the relationships, big Jewish ideas and core values, and a foundation of graduate work and high quality learning in Jewish early childhood education that contributed to the successes of the early childhood department.

We know these remarkable programs and community building efforts could not be done alone. The staff and leadership of the BJE/JLW in partnership with the directors and staff at the early childhood centers worked together to build an incredible network of schools which continue to thrive and impact hundreds and hundreds of families every year.

Ellen Brosbe served the Bay Area Jewish community for almost four decades as a Jewish educator. In 1979 she started the Beth Ami Community Nursery School in Santa Rosa with a group of community members. She was stationed in the early childhood education department at Jewish LearningWorks (formerly the Bureau of Jewish Education) for the second half of her career. During her many years as the director of the department, she worked behind the scenes in virtually every Jewish preschool in the Bay Area. Before that, she worked for the Jewish Family Education project for seven years. Her pioneering work has had a huge impact on children, families and educators.