When I arrived in Omaha in the late Summer of 2011 I was envious of very few of my rabbinic colleagues. In Omaha I found a great job, a loving congregation, and a committed community; I felt blessed then and I feel the same way today. There was only one thing that when I arrived I looked at friends around the country and said, “I wish I had that.” What was it that I missed? In many communities across the country early childhood centers are housed at Synagogues in addition to Jewish Community Centers. What I yearned for when I arrived was listening to small children run down the halls, hearing them singing, I looked forward to the day when my own kids would be enrolled and they could walk down the hall to my office or perhaps I could join them for lunch.
Five years have past since I arrived in Omaha and while I wonder what it would have been like to have my kids just down the hall, I learned very quickly the importance of a community early childhood center. For all the decisions that Shira and I made since arriving in Omaha, sending our children to the CDC at the JCC was one of the best decisions we made.
I never worried about my children’s Jewish education, whether in Omaha, New York or anywhere else we landed. I knew that Judaism would be part of our children’s lives on a daily basis. Yet at the CDC we found partners in our children’s Jewish education. The Talmud holds a special place for the individuals, both within our Jewish community and outside, that teach our children. It states, “those who uphold the community are like stars forever. Who are they? The ones who teach the young” (Baba Batra 8b). They are truly our stars as they care for our children like they are their very own.
The CDC creates an environment where our children learn about Jewish custom and tradition through stories and songs. Every week my kids are excited for Shabbat at home and at school, where they get to celebrate with their teachers and friends. A Friday does not go by where I am not asked for coins to give for tzedakah. There is perhaps no greater joy than getting ready for Shabbat dinner and seeing Leor cover his eyes as we light candles and waiting for Naama to lead us in HaMotzi. It is clear that the building blocks of both a solid education and Jewish identity begin at birth.
In the Fall of 2013, Michael Siegel, the chairman of Jewish Federations of North America put forth a goal of raising $1 billion over the next decade in hopes of revitalizing Jewish Life, and at the center of his plan was tuition free preschool. Many Jewish leaders dismissed the idea, yet with the increasing cost of ECE programs across the country, including Omaha, now is the time to make an investment in our community’s future. The data shows that early engagement with Jewish families leads to greater engagement.
All too often we cite Jewish Day School and Camp as ways to give our youth a booster shot of Jewish Identity. I agree and have been on both of those band wagons, and will continue to yell from the roof tops about their successes, yet the story that ends with a strong Jewish identity begins with preschool.
As of February, the CDC has 182 children from 138 families, of that 71 children from 53 families are Jewish, making the CDC 39% Jewish. I once heard someone say the CDC was our greatest asset in fighting anti-Semitism because it exposes non-Jewish children to Judaism. I believe that a by product of an excellent Jewish preschool can be educating non-Jews on Judaism, but it is not the reason Jewish preschools exist. The CDC was created to make sure that our most precious commodity, our children, grow up knowing and loving Judaism. I know there are more than 71 Jewish children ages 0-5 living in Omaha and so we have to ask ourselves why are they not at the CDC.
We have the ability to make Jewish preschool in Omaha a rite and not a privilege. A place that welcomes those who can afford, those who cannot, and those too proud to ask for help. We have a chance to make a difference in the lives of our children. This is not and cannot be a conversation about dollars and cents, but of souls touched, songs sung and stories told. We have the means; do we have the determination to build a program that makes Jewish preschool a birthright.
The rabbis teach us that “what is learned in early childhood is absorbed in the blood” (Avot de Rabbi Natan 24). Let us look back on this moment and realize that we overcame the challenge of our time and secured our children’s Jewish future for generations to come.