"Teach a child in the way he should go, and he will not stray from it even when he gets older," says the Bible.
"We all know that the rabbis felt that educating the youngest members of the next generation was critical if the Jewish people were to survive," said Maddy Malis, president and CEO of Federation Early Learning Services."They knew that early-childhood education is not babysitting. They knew it was a gateway into the Jewish community."
In that tradition, FELS offers programs in Jewish early-childhood education in their classrooms, coordinated by Ora Kesselman. These programs are funded in part through a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Center for Jewish Life and Learning.
Sydra Minkoff, 20 months, goes to FELS' Mary Bert Gutman Early Learning Center in Melrose Park, as does her brother Eli, who's 5. She doesn't know what the rabbis said, but she did come home from a Shabbat celebration and grabbed her teddy bear and her brother for a hora, said her mother, Carra.
"Eli talks about the Hebrew words he's learning," said Minkoff. "They were singingShabbat Shalom as soon as they could talk. We're grateful for the Jewish education they're getting."
"It is important to instill Jewish identity in children from an early age, and let them know who they are and where they came from," said Kesselman, an Israeli who has earned a bachelor's degree in Early Childhood Education and a master's degree in Jewish Education.
"At our Shabbat celebrations on Friday mornings, we light candles, make Kiddush and sayhamotzi over the challahs. The children also learn Hebrew, and we have stories, singing and dancing. Then we send Shabbat home, upon their parents' request," she continued. "Their small, purple backpacks have all the items a family needs – candlesticks, two small challahs, a kiddush cup, the prayers and instructions on what to do."
FELS and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia are linked in their joint efforts to reach out to parents and children to provide entry points to the Jewish community, said Rabbi Bonnie Goldberg, senior planner in the Center for Jewish Life and Learning. "It is critical to Federation and the community to work with young children and their parents to help make Judaism a meaningful part of their lives."
Kesselman also works as a consultant to Federation for programs open to all families, such as a Tot Shabbat at Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid in Broomall, site of the K'tonton Early Learning Center, and for a Shalom Baby! program in Federation's Delaware and Chester County Regions.
After meeting Kesselman, Karen Machimson, the mother of 31/2-year-old Lyla and a 4-month old, enrolled her daughter in the Broomall program. "Lyla tells us everything that happens in class with Miss Ora. She sings Shabbat songs at the top of her lungs."
Research and surveys support the value of Jewish early-childhood education, says Malis, who cited a study that found that 76 percent of the parents with children who attended a Jewish preschool continued their child's Jewish learning – 20 percent in Jewish day schools and 56 percent in synagogue-based programs.
And in FELS survey, 61 percent of families enrolled and 26 percent of alumni overwhelmingly indicated that FELS profoundly affected their family's Jewish lifestyle.
That's what happened when Sarah Fink, then 5, came home from the Terri Lynne Lokoff Early Learning Center and wanted her parents, Justin Fink and Sandra Masayko – an interfaith, unaffiliated couple – to observe Shabbat and the Jewish holidays at home.
After all, she told them: "I'm starting to be Jewish – that's my plan."
For more information, call FELS at 215-676-7550 or Rabbi Bonnie Goldberg at 215-832-0665.