When my husband and I moved our family from Brooklyn to the wilds of the Long Island suburbs eight months ago, our chief concern was securing great childcare for our twin toddlers. In Brooklyn, from the time they were 3 months old, Avi and Maya had been cared for part-time by Charlotte, a superhero dressed as a 25-year-old aspiring opera singer. Charlotte (Sha-Sha, to everyone in our family who loved her, which was everyone) could do anything our two babies needed, including arrive at our apartment at 8 a.m. so that I could hop the subway to Manhattan while the girls splatter-painted the walls with oatmeal. Charlotte glided into our lives and made it infinitely better. Alas, Sha-Sha wasn’t interested in moving to the ‘burbs with us. Go figure.
And so, when we landed on the (north) shores of this island, we weighed our options. I would still be working part-time, but really, it was more like three quarters when you considered the longer commute. We didn’t know many people in our new town and worried that a nanny wouldn’t have much to do with the girls, what with the whole everyone-needs-a-car-to-get-anywhere culture. We didn’t like the idea of the girls sitting in the house all day. In addition, at 18 months, Avi and Maya were starting to pick things up, and it seemed like they might just benefit from being in a Jewish environment.
Ideally, we wanted to enroll the girls in a synagogue preschool program. We liked the idea that through nursery school, we’d find a relatively organic and low-stress opportunity to meet other young families in our town. And we liked the idea that Avi and Maya would begin experiencing Shabbat, Hebrew, and the Jewish holidays, in a structured, accessible way.
Indeed, we found many great synagogue programs in our area. There was the temple with the organic farm and the cooperative bent. The conservative shul with a warm vibe and leafy playground. The well-heeled reform synagogue with state of the art facilities. The local Chabad, right on the water. But in each case, these programs, which only offered enrollment for kids aged 2 and up, would barely cover our childcare needs for half the day. Most programs we considered offered classes that met for three hours a day, two or three times a week. In some cases, there were five-hour programs available, but those were usually for older preschoolers. At one synagogue, the nursery school staff was incredibly accommodating, and shared with me their plans to begin implementing a wrap-around program that would offer parents early drop offs and late pick up options. But that isn’t in place yet.
As Gabrielle Birkner explores in her Lilith Magazine cover story this month, Jewish families looking for comprehensive Jewish childcare options find themselves with little or no options. We want our kids nurtured in an environment that offers them some Jewish component because we’re invested in their Jewish identity, but we need this component to exist within a framework that allows for parents to work full-time. It should hearten the Jewish establishment to know that we want to connect with other young Jewish families–we are inching, albeit slowly, back into the fold, in our myriad modern ways. Machers, throw us a rope!
In her article, Birkner reports that the Jewish community is taking note of this need–and in a promising turn of events, she tells of two Reform synagogues, one on the east coast and one on the west, that have partnered with a daycare center to begin offering full-day care. This is great news. But its two synagogues out of thousands. Birkner also reports that, “one philanthropy stepping up is the UJA-Federation of New York, which is exploring ways to expand the number of Jewish daycare facilities in its catchment area–as well as how to ease the financial burden of this childcare.” Jon and I have benefitted from this initiative at our New York-based and UJA-partnered JCC daycare. But I know many of you–most of you–likely don’t have these resources in your area.
This is the part of my blog post where I admit that I’m lucky to live in a vibrant Jewish community with lots of resources. Ultimately, we chose to send Avi and Maya to the daycare program at the JCC that serves our community. There, the program begins at 8:00 a.m. (though there are parents who drop their kids off earlier) and runs until 6 p.m. (Our kids don’t go for a full 10-hour day, but four days a week they’re there for seven hours, much more than any synagogue program could offer.) On a wooded campus, Avi and Maya learn about the Jewish holidays, wish everyone a Shabbat Shalom, have developed quite a taste for challah, visit horse stables, skin their knees at the playground, paint, color, nap, do the hokey pokey, learn about moss and bugs and the letters of the alphabet and eat kosher lunch and snacks. The girls are stimulated and social, the staff is young and energetic and nurturing, they’re learning and they’re safe.
Will the Jewish flavor of this particular daycare situation ensure that my daughters carry the religious torch forward? Likely not. As Jordana explained recently, it takes quite a bit more than that. But, this foundation certainly can’t hurt, either. And for reasons that Jon and I often find hard to articulate, it’s important to us that the girls’ education is beginning in a Jewish place. I repeat: we’re lucky this option exists for us.
But everyone should have this option!
It’s mind boggling to me that with our resources and our brains and our commitment and, in many cases, our deep pockets, the wider Jewish community hasn’t been able to provide this same option for Jewish families across the country. In fact, as Birkner notes, according to a recent Jewish Week article, “some of the largest foundations funding Jewish education have devoted only a small fraction of their resources to early childhood.”
Oh dear Jewish Establishment: we, the Jewish 30- and 40-somethings of North America who work and read and argue and research and sweat and stress and procreate, we are looking to be engaged. Many of us are but one baby step away from falling out of touch with our religious roots. We like the idea of our kids being cared for in a warm Jewish environment and though we’re not always sure why this matters, it does. We also like working. We don’t feel bad about this. We do feel bad, however, that our country has failed us many times over as we attempt to find equality in the workplace, tenable solutions for maternity and paternity leave, affordable healthcare and childcare. This isn’t so complicated. Give us a place to come, leave our children safely, and know that they are being nurtured into future mensches who might just learn that Judaism is fun. Who knows? A happy by-product might be our own engagement or re-engagement, as well. What a boon that would be to the community–truly something to kvell about.