December 8, 2022

Shine the Light for our Littlest Ones

Emily Fox Director of Jewish Educational Initiatives

Shortly after our Early Childhood Day of Learning last month, my friend and colleague, Sarah Koffler, shared a beautiful conversation she had with two educators from JCC of Central NJ. She told me that, “One of these educators was raised Muslim and the other Irish Catholic, and they each said that they never realized how deeply connected their own values are to Jewish values, and the values we seek to instill in our youngest learners.” They told her that thanks to one of the sessions, “they’d never felt more connected, seen, or proud to work in a Jewish early childhood setting.” 

I often think about these shared values, some of which include kindness, welcoming, curiosity, joy; and that these values inform how we teach and raise our young children. We are living in a moment when positive and shared values seem overshadowed by negativity and what divides us. We face threats of antisemitism unprecedented in our lifetime – just recently our GMW early childhood centers were closed or forced to play inside all day due to a threat to synagogues across our state. Even though antisemitism may be a reality that affects our children, it’s not easy – or developmentally appropriate – to really talk about it. And yet, we have to, in some way. 

The shared values that guide how young children learn are the exact antidote to antisemitism. Reinforcing kindness to all friends foreshadows adults who will treat each other with respect. Creating classrooms that are inclusive of all families sets the stage for a community that will be welcoming toward their neighbors. Building a culture of curiosity fosters future citizens who will lead with open minds and a willingness to learn from one another. And joy, something so natural and pure for children, is an essential Jewish value woven into almost every holiday and life cycle event. I think about that joy, especially at this season, as it radiates light into our homes and classrooms, and into the world. 

As a pre-K teacher, I loved the Hanukkah season. Inspired by the Maccabees, I would point out moments when students were brave – climbing on the playground, speaking up at circle time, letting a friend have a turn with toy. With the Hanukkiah (menorah) as our centerpiece, I would teach that we can be just like the shamash – the “helper” candle that lights the eight other candles. Just as the shamash shines more and more light each night of Hanukkah, we too can be helpers and through our actions shine light into our homes, communities, and the world. 

As adults, we can help our young children notice when they are being a shamash – checking on a sibling who just fell and is crying; helping to set the table; inviting a new friend to play. These are all small ways children help shine light and reinforce values that will stay with them throughout their entire lives. 

As I drove my daughter to school that Friday morning when our community was under threat, I took a deep breath and felt brave. While she may not have been able to play outside that day, I knew that inside her warm and loving school were Jewish values and Jewish lessons that would outshine any antisemitic ideas. And that she would be empowered to be a helper, be a shamash, and shine light in ways that will bring more kindness, more inclusivity, more openness, and more joy to our world.