Through my visits to Haifa over the years as part of the Boston-Haifa Early Childhood Educators’ Connection (BHECEC), I have looked for lessons in how we at the Early Childhood Institute (ECI) of Hebrew College can fortify the American Jewish Community which is becoming more and more assimilated and less and less affiliated.

Israelis understand that to effect national social change, the professionals working in education are the leading change agents.  Today, I attended a kickoff Recycling Event in Haifa that is the beginning of an educational campaign to encourage recycling. The Israeli Ministry of Education is collaborating with Israel’s Public Works Department, Israel’s national Recycling Non-profit Corporation ELA, and Haifa’s Department of Early Childhood Education to roll out an educational curriculum and an incentivized recycling program that rewards schools who collect recycling. To mark the occasion, the Mayor of Haifa, Yona Yahav, and the CEO of the ELA Corporation, welcomed young children and their families in attendance.  By forming this collaboration, Israel hopes to minimize landfill waste and make recycling a regular part of Israeli life.  This recycling program strives to create more mindful citizens of all Israelis young and old.

The recycling campaign is one of several national campaigns that have been successful collaborations between the Israeli Ministry of Education, local Departments of Early Childhood Education, and other organizations.  These campaigns address societal needs and challenges (i.e. road safety, embracing a healthier lifestyle, STEM education) that result in the growth of more mindful and capable citizens.  How can we in America use the same strategy to effect social change in the American Jewish Community to combat the national decline in Jewish affiliation and identity?

Understanding the lasting impact of early engagement with young families, administrators such as Shifra Anteby, Director of Early Education in the Haifa municipality and partner with the ECI of Hebrew College in the BHECEC, invest resources in Haifa’s early childhood educators and early engagement. In particular, Shifra and other Haifa administrators work with experts to continually develop detailed curricula that are distributed to all of their preschools, they design and offer professional development for educators and they collaborate with other organizations to ensure meaningful, intentional, effective and age appropriate education.

On one of her visits to Boston in 2014 as part of the BHECEC, Shifra and I spoke with Deval Patrick, then Governor of Massachusetts, and his Education Delegation, about how the early education system in Israel and in Haifa in particular is used in order to effect social change. Governor Patrick was very impressed and asked his delegation,

 “Why don’t we do that?”

I echoed him then and continue to ask today why we do not also use early education to effect social change in the United States. 

The fact that a strong early foundation is important to the development of a successful society and individuals is not new. Research supports it and ancient biblical text expresses it: “Educate a child according to his way, and even as he grows old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6.) The Jewish community in America can use an early engagement system to address the problems brought to light by the PEW Research Study such as a marked decrease in religious affiliation and identification of American Jews. To correct the continuing trend of dissolution of Jewish education and Jewish identity, the American Jewish community needs to re-envision our future and start teaching a new vision at an early age.

From the successes of early engagement strategies in Israel and Haifa in particular, we can conclude that it is possible for the American Jewish community to build a strong foundation by investing in young children and their families. We need to develop a comprehensive early engagement system that represents a national collaboration with local and national agencies that includes investment in our educators, curricula and early education programs, in order to increase the quality of Jewish experiential education and thereby thicken Jewish identity. Developing a Jewish identity rooted in knowledge and experience takes time, resources and patience.

Many communities in the US have developed early engagement programs to enrich Jewish identity for their own communities; a national system of early engagement can leverage successful regional strategies so that all of the American Jewish communities can benefit from all good early engagement programs.  I have started conversations nationally to explore the possibility of a national Jewish Early Childhood Education Summit where educators, professionals and funders can convene to jointly envision a nationally coordinated strategy going forward.

A new future will be possible for the entire American Jewish community if we learn from Israel and invest our time and resources to synthesize successful early engagement programming across the nation to give our youngest community members a consistent, strong beginning to a meaningful and lasting Jewish identity.

Rachel Raz is the director of the Early Childhood Institute at Hebrew College, MA. She is the Director of Boston Haifa Early Childhood Educators’ Connection under Hebrew College and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP). She is an advocate for Early Education and Early Engagement and plans to host a national summit to develop a national strategic plan and action to address the issues facing American Jewry today. To learn more about her work contact Rachel at rraz@hebrewcollege.edu