Community Blog Jewish Early Engagement Forum (JEEF): A Conversation with Founder Rachel Raz, MJEd’06
Why did you create JEEF?
Raz: I founded JEEF for the betterment of the future of the Jewish community in the United States. I want young Jewish families to have rich, meaningful Jewish experiences and strong and proud Jewish identities. I have seen changes in society that are creating many challenges for our young Jewish families, and JEEF will provide an unprecedented opportunity to bring together professionals, institutions and organizations in order to address these challenges in a unified and coordinated way. By working nationally to fortify the Jewish identity of young families, we will secure a stronger foundation for the future of our Jewish community.
My work is a reaction to the reality that I see. During these last ten years that I have been working in the Early Childhood Institute, I have witnessed changes: the rising number of dual income families; young parents raising their children far away from immediate family; increasing numbers of intermarried families; decreasing Jewish practice, affiliation and knowledge; a decline in the status of educators; the changing role of the school from child-centered to family-centered education; and shifting values in our society. I receive emails and phone calls from directors lamenting the lack of qualified educators to hire; I see that synagogues are shrinking and struggling to successfully recruit young families. I see that there is a lack of resources invested in training our professionals working with young families. Today more than ever, in the digital era, change happens quickly. We cannot wait five or ten years to act – we need to understand and address the current challenges and act quickly while we still have Jewishly identifying young families.
JEEF is bigger than any single institution. Only by understanding the challenges and trends of the larger national landscape can we make informed decisions on the local level. Each of us cannot overcome the changes in our society on our own as individuals. It is incumbent upon us to work together as a community to overcome societal challenges.
Who should attend?
Raz: Clergy, funders, temple and preschool board members, education and preschool directors, lay leaders, and professionals in the field of early engagement are welcome to participate.
Why did you choose the theme, From Building Blocks to Building Communities: Securing a Stronger Foundation Together, for July’s National Symposium at Hebrew College?
Raz: When it comes to the delicate task of building Jewish identity, research in child development theory demonstrates that identity formation starts at infancy. Today, especially given the demographics of our young families in the Jewish community, characterized by increasing numbers of inter-marrieds and unaffiliated or marginalized in-marrieds who live a distance away from their home towns, the American Jewish community needs to step up and provide the support that a generation or two ago would have been provided by immediate family members who lived in close proximity. The work that needs to be done includes identity formation of the child but even more importantly, empowerment and Jewish identity formation of the young family. The kind of support that we provide to young families in the Jewish community will need to include connection to a vibrant, joyful and meaningful Jewish community that is relevant in modernity. Therefore, when we were thinking about the theme for July’s JEEF National Symposium, we wanted to stress that early engagement is much more complicated and comprehensive than simply playing with building blocks, because effective Jewish early engagement includes building a foundation for Jewish identity formation for the child, for the family, and for the broader American Jewish community living in the 21st century.
How does the forum work with the Early Childhood Institute?
Raz: Both JEEF and the Early Childhood Institute (ECI) share the same goal, of ensuring a stronger future for the Jewish community. Serving the Jewish community and building a strong foundation for children and families is the core mission upon which the Early Childhood Institute (ECI) was founded. The future of the Jewish community is most effectively strengthened through our work with children and their families. Ina Regosin, founder of the ECI, and Hebrew College understood that in order to strengthen Jewish practice for children and their families we need highly qualified Jewish education. For nearly 30 years, we have been training educators to equip and inspire them in their work with children and families.
We at Hebrew College are uniquely positioned to host JEEF since Hebrew College is a pluralistic institution whose main goal is to strengthen Jewish identity by providing education to the entire Jewish community regardless of faith, Jewish affiliation, or geographic location. Furthermore, through our work visiting sites, through our involvement with our graduate students’ research in the field, and through our national connections to other professionals in early engagement within the Jewish community, we are able to bring panelists from across the country who will be able to present specific challenges and opportunities that we as a community need to address together.
Rachel Raz, MJEd’06 is the director of the Early Childhood Institute, Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education at Hebrew College.