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  • 26 Jun 2024 by Lisa Samick

    I wrote at some point earlier this year that I almost miss COVID, given the current situation in Jewish Education.  While I said that somewhat tongue in cheek, it speaks to the fact that we have been leading our schools and ECE-RJ from trauma to trauma; and yet, we all have persevered.  We forged new partnerships; we created new initiatives, and we kept moving forward - despite being in pain. 

    In July of 2023, the ECE-RJ board came together to plan and to dream about what might be possible this year.  While we could not have imagined what would happen just a few months later, I am proud of the fact that we were able to enact many of the ideas generated that week.  But NONE of that would’ve been possible without so many of you.   

    In my office, I have hanging the line from Pirkei Avot: “Lo Alecha Hamlacha Ligmor”... It is not required of you to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it 

    We could not have accomplished ANY of the things we’ve done this year without all of you - and we need these and each one of you that hasn’t yet leaned in to continue to drive the success of our organization.  We are all overburdened and overworked in our jobs, and often overwhelmed by our lives, but any of us who have been involved in this work will tell you that we get SO much more back from what we put in - and I want to invite every one of you to engage more deeply in ECE-RJ.   

    Please take 30 seconds to look and to indicate which areas YOU might be interested in working on this year.  There is work that is short term and long term, tasks that will take just a few minutes to maybe a few hours over the course of a month - this is not committing you to more than you can take on.   

    To prepare for the annual meeting, and my “state of the organization” reflection, I looked back at the Forum posts over the past year and created this word cloud to try to capture what was on our minds over the past 12 months.   

    There were, of course, many posts about Israel and about security - but there were also such incredible conversations around learning differences, relationships with the Temples we are affiliated with, job description development and how Universal PreK is affecting many of our schools.   

    To address these issues, ECE-RJ took a multi-tiered approach - we, of course, continued with our Meet-Ups, our ongoing monthly professional development offerings - led by our VPs of Learning Mihaela Schwartz and Zoe Miller and their Learning Committee, we had sessions on Antisemitism, on Gender Identity, on Teaching Literacy, on Helping our parents and staff through trauma - and so much more. 

    We introduced a new initiative this year called “Monthly Round Tables' where different board members hosted a zoom meeting around a specific topic for Directors to come together to network, brainstorm and commiserate.  It was a huge success and out of these sessions came resources around how to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut this year, how to articulate the non-financial benefits of having early childhood centers in synagogues, and resources for staff training and inspiration.  

    We launched our 2nd cohort of the New Directors Group, which last year was led by board members Amy Damast and Ellen Lefkowitz.  Cohort 2 is being led by Cohort 1 participants, Leah Lyndon and Laura Krautheim, and we are eager to launch Cohort 3 next year.  We also started the ECE-RJ Engagement Network, led by Lauren Byers, bringing together different professionals who are dealing with engaging families with young children.   

    Under the leadership of Susie Wexler, we also piloted a Mentorship program, pairing newer directors with more experienced ones.  We are eager to expand and improve on this in 2024-2025. 

    … and that was just the tip of the iceberg.  One of our most significant events this year was the Yom Chadash Conference in Memphis, TN.  This year’s conference, which was a partnership with ARJE, offered an incredible new opportunity for us to learn with Religious School educators and the experience really illustrated both how intertwined our work is and how much we have to learn from one another. 

    Helen Keller once said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

  • 05 May 2024 by Leslie Scheck

    We are all facing a challenging time, managing complex and difficult emotions around what is happening in Israel, in Gaza, and on college campuses all around the United States.  But as a community, we are committed to balancing these emotions with creating joyful interactions for our students and our families in our Jewish spaces - here and in Israel. We are here to support each other, our colleagues, and the parents in our schools as we navigate these feelings together.  


    As Jewish Early Childhood Centers, we work hard to develop a love of learning and Judaism in our students.  We help to facilitate the creation of core Jewish experiences, which will become the foundation of our students' Jewish identity. Israel and Yom Ha'Atzma'ut are key components of that curriculum.  We want the students to learn about Israel as the Jewish homeland where many of the stories of our people, our history, and our holidays take place.  We aim to provide some understanding of the culture of Israel in a hands-on, experiential approach - with a focus on specific sights the children may visit (i.e., the Dead Sea, the Shuk, the Kotel, Tel Aviv, Tzfat) and get to taste some Israeli food, learn Israeli songs, dances, and language.  


    We know that Israel's history is complicated and fraught with conflict and emotion.  Especially in a time of war where there are opinions to be found in all directions, we are committed to teaching Israel in an age-appropriate way, to celebrating Israel for all the people and the land mean to us, and to being a source of beautiful Jewish joy in a world so in need of it right now!


    As you consider your own observance of the holiday, we are eager to hear more about what you are thinking and what decisions you make.  Please be sure to share in the forum and/or on FB so that we can all learn from and with each other.  

    Leslie Scheck, VP of Marketing and Communications

  • 01 Feb 2024 by Lisa Samick

    There is a little book called Dear God: Children’s Letters to God by David Heller that I always think of at this time of the year as we read about our Biblical ancestors’ enslavement in Egypt and their path to freedom. Originally written by Heller in 1987, these brief letters, written by children ranging in age from 6 to 12 from various religious and cultural backgrounds, emerged from Heller’s research on children’s religious and moral development.

    Dear God: Thank you for my baby brother. But what I really wanted was a puppy. Joyce.
    Dear God: Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each other so much if they each had their own rooms. It works with my brother. Larry.
    Dear God: We read in school that Thomas Edison made light. But in Sunday School, they said that you did it. I bet he stole your idea. Donna.

    As we join as one this morning in Memphis, representing two professional organizations, the ARJE and the ECE-RJ, we are all bound by our everyday work with children and our desire to be both learners and teachers of Torah. In this week's Torah Portion, Beshalach, the Israelites finally leave Egypt, and eventually, they come up against the Reed Sea. Having changed his mind about letting them go, Pharaoh pursues them with horses and chariots. The people come close to despair and imagine their end would come soon. Then, in one of the supreme miracles of history, the sea divides. The Israelites passed through and, led by Miriam, the prophetess, sang a meaningful song of freedom, faith, and deliverance. 

    Our sages ask why the Israelites deserved to be saved in such an extraordinary manner, and the sages answer that it was because of the Israelite children, who were a significant part of the multitudes that came out of Egypt. In tractate Sotah, the Talmud records that the children who left Egypt were the first to recognize God. This is a puzzling statement. After all, the nation that left Egypt included the great spiritual giants Moses, Miriam, Aaron Joshua, and all the elders of Israel. Yet, according to the sages, these famous ones were not the first to recognize God; it was precisely the children — children born and raised amid Egyptian oppression. Nevertheless, our sages proclaim that the children received a fitting and proper education, which imbued them with the ability to recognize God. The Torah even hints that the children, as they crossed, could point with their fingers, saying, "This is my God, whom I will glorify."

    Together this week, we are taking the ideas of slavery and freedom – echoed in this week’s portion and the complicated US history we are surrounded by in Memphis and moving one step further into belonging.  It is not enough to be free – we need to be seen, recognized and celebrated as individuals in the community. 

    Joe mentioned a moment ago that the children who left Egypt were the first to recognize God. As teachers, we can take comfort in explaining that their “proper and fitting education” allowed them to do so.  But, as experts in child development and childhood, we can also embrace that their boundless imagination will enable children to see the world in a way that is sometimes more challenging to do as adults.  The shoulds, the musts, and the can’ts, do not confine children.  Their conception of belonging is not marred by preconceived notions or by prejudice or fear; in many ways, they see things more clearly and authentically than we can.

    What if, over the next three days together, we can adopt that lens, that clarity, and that innocence?  What if we could put aside our own definitions of what belonging means, put aside our concept of who ARJE is and who ECE-RJ is, and approach it all anew? While belonging is something we’ve grappled with for a long time – as educators, as organizations, and as a movement, what would it take to forget (or at least put aside) all of that learning and start together from zero?  To build an approach that breaks down the barriers that have separated us and opens up our communities in ways we couldn’t have previously imagined?

    In Early Childhood classrooms, our students are not burdened by the lanes they’ve been put in, the labels that other people have given them, or the boundaries of their specific position. Indeed, that gets more complicated as children get older, but in the beginning, they are free to be a superhero one day, an electrical engineer the next, and a puppy after that.  In those moments, they are not just playing; they are constructing. Their concept of identity is still forming, and as such, they can experiment with who they are and who they are becoming.  There are no lines around what they can and cannot be – and for the next three days, there are no lines around us. 

    The lesson from all this is that our work is interconnected, and we are stronger together. We are like the Israelites at the sea, singing Miriam’s song but not doing so as individual tunes but rather as communal music. And if one wishes to be truly blessed, both materially and spiritually, including nachas from our students, then the way to that is through engaging our students and their families in meaningful and relevant Torah education. What we have in common is how our strengths can strengthen each other, and from our time together, we can and will produce young adults with a sacred life filled with energy and vitality in Judaism when they go to synagogue and throughout their lives. That is our joint mission as Jewish educators and what binds us in our daily labors.

    Dear God: I didn't think orange went with purple until I saw the sunset you made on Tuesday. That was cool!

    Lisa Samick, ECE-RJ President

    Rabbi Joe Eiduson,  RJE, ARJE President