|Dan and Rabbi Rachel Steiner hold their son, Ezra, a “pioneer” in Gan Tinok. Courtesy Barnert Temple|
It was time to start an infant care program, said Sara Losch, director of lifelong learning at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, announcing the synagogue’s latest initiative.
While the idea had been floated in the congregation for years, the birth of a new baby – born to the congregation’s associate rabbi, Rachel Steiner – provided the final push.
“It would be a tough thing to do, we knew that,” Losch said. “We had played with the idea for a long time, but we didn’t feel we had a critical mass.” But now, with the birth of the new baby, “if there was a time to really look at this, now was the time.”
The shul, she said, also was inspired by recent media articles framing the issue of Jewish child care. While the problems discussed in the pieces were not new to the educators at Barnert, it brought home to them the fact that “young Jewish families are really having trouble. They would like their children to be enrolled in Jewish programming, but there is no such thing.”
According to the piece Losch cited on “Kveller,” a parenting blog, working parents seeking extended day care often are unable to find it within a Jewish context. Those who would rather send their children to a synagogue than to a secular child care facility are frustrated by the search.
Even the former chair of the Barnert Lifelong Learning Committee still lamented the fact that such child care hadn’t existed when his own kids were young, she said.
“He said we needed day care and that he felt sad about it,” said Losch, who now is celebrating her 25th year as head of the synagogue’s preschool program. Noting proudly her synagogue’s recent decision to move forward with the baby care venture, she said that Rachel and Dan Steiner’s baby, Ezra, will reap the benefits of that action.
Losch pointed out that when she started the preschool, “we had six kids – one was mine, and there were two siblings. When we started in a brand new empty building, who knew we would ever have a building filled with Jewish children singing Shabbat songs?
“The world has changed,” she added, noting that this program, too, would be starting with only a few babies. “Synagogues need to be relevant. The younger we bring families in, the more support we can give them to create Jewish families.”
When a young couple gets married, two ‘me’s’ become a ‘we,'” she said, adding that in teaching Jewish parenting values, the synagogue has the opportunity to show parents what “we” can look like. Indeed, she said, the synagogue already offers a Melton class for young Jewish parents, taught by Rabbi Steiner, with precisely this goal in mind.
While many people in the shul’s catchment area do not need infant care, because many mothers don’t work or the families can afford nannies, “that’s not the point,” Losch said, noting that the program must be available to those who do need it.
“As Rabbi Frishman has said, we’re not a chain, we’re your home – your Jewish home,” she said, referring to Elyse Frishman, the synagogue’s spiritual leader. “We’re going to be your nanny in a Jewish building. You’ll get the love and treatment given to preschool families. You’ll have a Jewish community behind you.”
Losch explained that infant care will be provided in the preschool, where, for now, two cribs will be available.
“There’s still a lot to figure out,” she said, pointing out that the shul is not at all unused to babies. About six years ago the synagogue had two teachers who had infants. To accommodate their needs, it was arranged that one mother work mornings while the other watched the children. The two would switch jobs in the afternoon.
“They brought the babies into the classrooms and the sanctuary,” Losch said. “The children grew up in the embrace of a building full of Jewish mothers and fathers. We all raised them.”
Since the synagogue’s preschool program starts with 2-year-olds, ending after kindergarten, the shul created a Little Sprouts program for the two babies when they turned 1.
“In other words, we grew the school for [the teachers’] Jewish children,” Losch said. “We hired one of our temple members, Gail Rivlin, a teacher, and she turned it into a very successful program.” Today, some 12 children are registered in Little Sprouts.
A new teacher has been hired for the infant care program, dubbed Gan Tinok or, literally, child’s garden. She will watch the babies in the morning, while Rivlin, who teaches only in the morning, will take over in the afternoon. The extended day will run from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. More teachers will be added as needed to maintain the ratio of one teacher for every two children.
“We already have a lot of things around,” Losch said, noting that the preschool facilities have a sink, fridge, microwave, toys, and shelves. In addition, she said, procedures for exercises like fire drills already exist.
“We want people to understand the issue,” she said, explaining why the new program must exist. “We want young Jewish families to pick a Jewish environment, so that as a family they can start Jewish life right at the beginning. Our primary goal is not to make money but to provide a service not yet provided by the community.
“I’m a total follower of Ron Wolfson’s book ‘Relational Judaism,'” she said. “It begins right from birth.”
The program is open to the Jewish community, though families who participate must be full or associate temple members.
“They can come in and talk to us,” Losch said. “Our membership team will work with them.”
She noted that the infants will be exposed to Jewish programming, with a music teacher singing Jewish songs.
“They take in everything from the beginning,” she said, adding that Frishman also will spend time with the babies. “They’ll get to know her voice and her feeling – that she loves them,” Losch said. “They’ll get the whole package.”
For her part, Frishman is equally excited about the new program.
“From the day a child is born, we parents imagine the future,” she wrote in an email. “We hope that we’ll be able to provide the best opportunities, guidance, advice, and influences. As our children grow, we worry about what we can’t control: life’s circumstances. The synagogue is the Jewish kitchen, family room, and living room – that second home where we deepen ourselves and celebrate life. What we can’t control, we learn how to manage.”
Frishman added that “as parents of all ages, in the shared community of the synagogue, we support one another through the wisdom of our heritage, experience, and values. With early child care, we can enter the embrace of the synagogue from the beginning of our child’s life. No person is invisible, no person untended. We are here to meet your needs – not for you to meet ours.”
For more information, email Losch at firstname.lastname@example.org.