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A Vital Boost for Jewish Preschools

By CARING, COMMUNITY, Jewish Education Collaborative

For many families with young children, Jewish preschool is their first meaningful step into Jewish communal life – a welcoming and safe space to explore Jewish tradition and meet other Jewish families. Atlanta’s 22 Jewish preschools have provided exactly those kinds of connections; however, when the COVID-19 virus hit, many Jewish preschools closed, teachers were furloughed, and families felt stranded. 

Preschool directors and teachers worked hard to maintain a strong connection with their families athey navigated the best way to reopen their schools. But in reality, the schools were hit hard with lower enrollment numbers and rising costs for staffing, COVID-safe adaptive spaces, and PPE necessities.  

Thankfully, Federation’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund provided crucial funding for reopening. It allocated $100,000 to assist with reopening costs, including, but not limited to: new sanitation supplies and PPE including masks, gloves, disinfectant, cleaning supplies, no-touch thermometers, electrostatic foggers, and washing stations.  

Following a second organizational needs survey, the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund directed an additional $100,000 in scholarships to families at 12 of our Jewish preschools. Sixty-five families and 98 children have received scholarship assistance and the impact has been profound. 

The global pandemic and financial impacts are still unfolding and creating significant needs for scholarships in the Jewish preschool sector. Families are finding themselves in serious financial distress due to under employment, and at the same time, they count on Jewish preschools for their children’s care. Jewish preschools are often at the core of a family’s connection and belonging in the Jewish community.  

Federation’s funding strategy was to invest in preschools that are sustainable, have strong leadership, and support from their host institution (when applicable). Criteria were developed in order to evaluate eligibility for preschool re-opening grants. Ultimately, the goal was to keep as many children enrolled as possible and allow parents to remain in the workforce. The funds were made available so that families enrolled in the fall are able to continue into winter and, in some cases, new students can join in winter as well. This funding is a one-year infusion of additional support for tuition assistance needs during the 2020-21 school year. 

One grateful family said: Unfortunately, due to COVID19 our financial situation was significantly impacted when my spouse, the main provider in the family, lost his job back in April 2020. This has resulted in losing over 70% of our household income resulting in a challenging financial reality for us in general and questions about our ability to continue covering our son’s daycare costs specifically. Thanks to your generosity my son is able to continue attending his preschool, he is happy and we’re happy knowing he is in a safe environment dedicated to continuing his Jewish education.“ 

Creativity and Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

By Jewish Education Collaborative

By Rabbi Elana Perry, Director Jewish Education Collaborative

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” they say. Many people in the Jewish community think of part-time Jewish education as the “old dog,” imagining that today’s children are enduring the same rote lessons in Hebrew School that they remember from childhood. In reality, supplemental Jewish education has been changing rapidly, even before Covid-19 turned the world upside down. And it is because of the unprecedented ability of our educational leaders to pivot and innovate, that part-time Jewish education will grow and thrive in the months and years to come. 

The ability maintain connections, has been key. And while some people may be skeptical about what can be accomplished from a distance, Atlanta’s Jewish educators are proving that anything is possible. In the face of the global pandemic, religious schools throughout metro Atlanta transitioned quickly to online platforms like Zoom to deliver engaging and interactive virtual learning. As Temple Emanu-El’s Diamond Family Religious School Director Beth Blick says, “From Kahoot! and YouTube to BimBam and [online] “field trips,” our students have continued to learn with a larger focus on staying connected to their community.”

At Congregation Etz Chaim, faculty members created their own online videos and have met in small groups and with individual students to keep them engaged with Hebrew, while utilizing additional online games for interactive learning. Congregation Bet Haverim hosts Netflix watch parties featuring Jewish-themed films with older students and provides fun weekly “mitzvah bingo cards” for kids to complete with their families. 

Jewish Kids Groups created JKG at Home, broadcasting on Facebook Live every weekday afternoon. Favorite sessions have included interactive Jewish Art and Hebrew Yoga online. Some families have enjoyed the experiences live, while others access the recorded content at a time that works best for them. 

Students in Temple Sinai’s Noar Sunday program celebrated Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, by choosing real-time interactive electives such as Israeli Army training, pita-baking, or maker-space technology. And Congregation Beth Shalom has used Zoom to make sure to keep students connected to their beloved Shishin, Yael, dialing in from across the world. 

Congregation Or Hadash scrapped their curriculum entirely and shifted to a “gym-like” schedule, offering live subject-based classes, allowing families to self-select how and when they participate. “Our main goals,” said Director of Education Rachel Herman, “are to offer flexibility for our families, to stay connected with one another and to foster community.”  

I can jump into a Zoom classroom and immediately see the joy on the kids’ faces in seeing their TBT friends,” says Temple Beth Tikvah Religious School Director Suzanne Hurwitz. “It’s reassuring that we are able to remain connected and productive in these times.” 

Jewish tradition teaches us: “One should always be flexible like a reed, and not hardened like a cedar tree. For the reed, when the winds blow, moves with the wind... But the cedar tree, when the strong southern wind blows, is uprooted and turned on its head” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan, 41). Atlanta’s Jewish supplemental education leaders – directors, teachers, clergy, and more – have embraced the role of the reed. They have moved swiftly as demanded by this moment in time, demonstrating flexibility and creativity to support and enrich Jewish families during an incredibly challenging period. And while nobody has a crystal ball to say what the future will hold, whether our children can learn in-person or from a distance, it is because of the unprecedented ability of our leaders to pivot and innovate, that part-time Jewish education will grow and thrive in the months and years to come.