When I was growing up, my favorite Jewish early childhood teacher was Tamar. She made the Jewish classroom come alive, regaling my fellow peers and me with stories about parting the Red Sea, the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights, and Hamen’s triangular hat. Tamar taught us how to chant the aleph-bet and count to 10 in Hebrew, she led us in the many tunes of Adon Olam—the first prayer most of us ever learned—and most of all, she instilled in us a love for Judaism early on that would blossom throughout our years.
Teachers from early in our consciousness make a big impression and, like Tamar, there are so many engaging Jewish early childhood teachers who have made a huge difference in the lives of the little ones they teach.
This winter, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago awarded the three inaugural winners of the Early Childhood Kehillah (ECK) Excellence in Teaching Awards, honoring outstanding classroom-based teaching in formal early childhood settings. The winners are the following:
Darlene Gordon, Jacob Duman JCC at Woodland Commons, Buffalo Grove
Staci Margulis, Arie Crown Hebrew Day School, Skokie
Cherene Radis, Moriah Early Childhood Center, Deerfield
Launched this past year by the Early Childhood Kehillah of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, the ECK Awards are the first program of its kind in Chicago. The program recognizes the work of early childhood teachers who help the youngest members of the community learn about their Jewish traditions and heritage in a developmentally-appropriate manner. Candidates were judged on five criteria: Excellence in teaching, parent partnership, collegiality, commitment to professional development, and as advocates for early childhood.
The three winners, nominated by their peers, one from each of the Kehillah-affiliated systems (ATT, CFJE, and JCC), were honored at the Early Childhood Kehillah Professional Development Conference on Feb. 21 at Solomon Schechter in Northbrook. The conference assembled 400 early childhood educators, kicked off with a keynote by Diane Frankenstein, a national early childhood literacy expert.
Each winner receives $1,800—$1,000 directed to the teacher and $800 directed toward the teacher’s school or a special project/funding priority of their choosing.
“We know how important Jewish preschools are in building a foundation for lifelong Jewish learning and we wanted to acknowledge the excellent work of the teachers who are doing this work every day,” said Dr. Peter B. Friedman, executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
Below, the three winners of the Early Childhood Kehillah Excellence in Teaching Awards each answer the following question: What are the best ways to cultivate the youngest of Jewish students?
Darlene Gordon, Jacob Duman JCC
“I believe that when young children experience Judaism every day, participating in ritual and observances appropriate for their level of development and understanding, they are likely to develop strong Jewish identities. This is a very important time for teachers to make the class full of Jewish symbols, books, music, and experiences. .”
Staci Margulis, Arie Crown Hebrew Day School
“Early childhood classrooms are the context in which small children take their first tentative steps outside the safe confines of their family circle, into the greater world. Their definition of self, which will grow and expand throughout their various experiences in life, has the opportunity to be significantly touched here. We Jewish early childhood educators can contribute invaluably to the Jewish community by creating a warm, loving, safe, authentic Jewish environment for our youngest students. Then, we have to step back, respect, and support the children's innate ability and desire to explore, learn and grow.”
Cherene Radis, Moriah Early Childhood Center
“Through Jewish lenses, build strong and trusting relationships with the children and their families. Listen to the needs and interests of the children. Teach in a way that is joyful. Children can think for themselves and are capable, nurture this. Model curiosity, exploration and research. Never steal a learning moment from a child. Let them do it, let them problem solve, and be there to help stretch them when needed. Tell stories—Jewish stories. Make the ordinary moment, holy, by infusing it with Judaism.”
The Early Childhood Kehillah is a project of the Jewish Federation in partnership with the Associated Talmud Torahs, Community Foundation for Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago, and JCC Chicago.