My daughter Sophie will be 3 this November. My husband Philippe and I have decided to let her start half-day preschool (she’s begged). Still, we’re late starting to look at options. I can’t settle on anything, and as a doctoral student in education, I fear my knowledge of the research—my vise-grip on “how things should be”— has gotten in the way.
Ironically, in the world of parenting and education, it seems as though you can really know too much, or at least can be too critical. Then, I see an ad for a Jewish preschool not far from our home.
My own religious past is complicated. I was raised Protestant because of my father, but my mother’s entire family was Jewish. My maternal grandfather and his brother were the only ones who survived the Holocaust, traveling from Hungary to Ellis Island in the hold of a ship. As both my grandparents died when I was a child, I was never able to ask any more. If I had a story to tell about my past, it would be one of absence and loss, of lacking knowledge—hardly the only story I want to pass down.
“Let’s check it out,” I tell my Catholic-raised husband, who was actually taught by nuns in his early years. We’d decided not to push Sophie towards any faith, but the school looks like a good option, emphasizing respectful interactions, strong routines, and a balance of strictness and care. At least that’s what the website says.
In my work, I know the importance of high-quality early education. As decades-long studies have shown, such as the Perry Preschool Study, children who were placed in a “high-quality” program were found to commit less crime, have higher educational attainment and income, and need less welfare assistance than a control group.
And yet, I know that a child’s experiences include far more than a single classroom. Developmental psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner, in his “ecological systems theory” developed in 1979, describes how everything in a child’s environment affects her development, ranging from the microsystem, or her immediate surroundings, through the macrosystem, or remote issues such as the national economy, which affect a child’s experiences in surprising ways. Choosing a preschool means choosing a microsystem, where Sophie will have thousands of interactions with teachers and peers over the course of the day.
No pressure, I tell myself.
When I visit the school, I stand in the temple while the children sit in a semicircle singing Shabbat songs. Their voices mix together, high and low, and bring me to tears. The narrative I had about myself, about my past as a source of loss, didn’t have to be the one I passed down. My past—and the culture surrounding it—could be a source of joy, of learning, and of life.
Even more, seeing the school in action helps me change my narrative about what Sophie needs, and what I need as well. It’s not about what should work for a child, I concede, but what actually does work, for the child as well as the family. It’s about the values we want to move toward, the history we want to honor, and the past we want to bring to light. What resonates for one family might mean nothing to another. In the ecological model, context is everything.
We decide to send Sophie to that school in the fall. My own life comes full circle, in a twist that I couldn’t have predicted. In attending a Jewish preschool, Sophie—blonde and blue-eyed like her father—will have a chance to touch her past through her present, to eat apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, smell sweet spices for Havdalah, and play in a sukkah for Sukkot. I never went to temple until college. In helping Sophie know her past, I’m returning to a system of traditions that I, in my own life, have ignored.
The Jewish part of my history has been buried until now, and with it, my story about myself. Without searching for a preschool—and without finding this one—we probably never would have made this decision at all. Not only that: As we light candles for Shabbat, and as we tear into a loaf of challah bread, I’m helping change my story of the past into something sweeter. History can be a chance for celebration, not simply mourning. Those traditions are coming alive for us once again.