A Year in the Life of… the JRS’s

Posted on 05/21/2021 @ 08:00 AM

Tags: Jewish Schools & Educational Services

Photo from cedarhillprep.com

You may recall that JRS stands for Jewish Resource Specialist, a teacher - leader in an Early Childhood Education (ECE) program that holds an additional role added to the ones s/he already has. 
The JRS is a professional embedded in a school who is asked to focus on how to:
  • Deepen the Jewish engagement of their school families AND
  • Deepen the Jewish learning in the ECE- for teachers, children and families.

The JRS Initiative is a 3-year pilot program generously funded by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. Five ECEs are participating: Alper JCCAventura Turnberry Jewish CenterBeth Torah Benny Rok CampusTemple Beth Sholom and Temple Judea.
Here is where our story starts. 
Let’s go back to the beginning, during this past school year, to Monday, March 16, 2020, the day the Covid 19 lockdown started. Teaching and learning in the ECEs changed for what seemed to be the unforeseeable future. 
The schools immediately had to cancel in-person classes and early childhood teachers were compelled to hold morning circles, playground time, story time, Jewish holiday explorations, science experiments and more via the virtual platform Zoom. 
With the lockdown, many parents were at home as well, working from home and at the same time assisting their children in getting online, adjusting the tech equipment and making sure their children are staying on task.
Many ECE directors, teachers and parents expressed their thanks that the pandemic hit in March, rather than in late summer or fall, when the children would not have known each other. They could not imagine working to build community and nurture relationships solely through a computer screen
Some parents who were deemed “essential workers” were put in a bind, because their Jewish ECE of choice went virtual and they needed a place to bring their children while they are at work. So they transferred their children to other programs. 
With great effort and dedication, directors, teachers, children and parents managed to complete the school year- with virtual, drive through or parking lot celebrations. And then, instead of taking some necessary time off, directors and teachers had to continue planning over the summer how to open their programs in the safest way possible in the Fall. 
Following CDC, state and local guidelines, our schools had to draw up protocols that effect every part of the ECE- from numbers of children in classrooms to ensure adequate space for social distancing, new ratios of teachers and children in individual classrooms, mask wearing, sanitizing equipment on a regimented schedule. And perhaps the most drastic protocol- no parents allowed in the ECE building. 
Can you imagine being the parent of a child going to an early childhood education program for the first time and not being able to walk with your child into her new classroom? 
Can you imagine parents enrolling their young children in a school in which they have only seen the classrooms through a virtual tour? 
Can you imagine not seeing other parents and being able to schmooze with them in the hallways and breezeways as their children start their busy days?
Since a major focus of the JRS’s work is engaging parents, how could we possibly do that effectively via Zoom?
And even if we came up with the most dynamic programs, we soon realized that parents were experiencing “zoom fatigue” from their own work and managing their children’s school programs. 
Creatively and strategically, CAJE created a year of professional development for the JRSs. This professional learning focused on two major themes: 1- exploring the latest research in Jewish families of young children from CASJE, the Consortium of Applied Studies in Jewish Education and 2- honing their skills as Jewish educators.
With monthly virtual meetings, the JRSs got to know each other better in so many significant ways. They connected with each other during our various life cycle moments- a death of a parent and grandparent, and the birth of a baby. 
They taught each other Torah- by giving Divrei Torah that opened their eyes to new ways of looking at the sacred narrative. 
They learned that today’s parents of young children define Jewish engagement in many different ways. These parents may not necessarily want to affiliate with a Jewish legacy organization (i.e., a congregation or JCC) but they find it very important to get together with other Jewish families, look forward to holiday celebrations with family and friends, feel engaged when they read Jewish books to their children, and are open to practicing Jewish rituals in the home, like lighting Shabbat candles or leading their children in the Shema before they go to sleep.
Our JRSs are ready to start their work when ECEs open for the 2021-2022 school year and are anxious and excited about being back in their early childhood settings with the parents whose energy, interest and curiosity are so precious and vital to creating Jewish family lives of meaning and purpose.