As a community, we need to think about how we support Jewish babies. Throughout the past decade, there have been many philanthropic initiatives to help young adults meet each other in order to help create the next generation of Jewish children. Yet once these Jewish children are in the world, there is minimal communal support to help them and their families receive the care they need.
Throughout America, we have a thriving ecosystem of Jewish early childhood centers that are connected to synagogues, Jewish community centers (JCCs), Chabad and day schools. While some of these, mainly JCCs, have embedded infant centers,many centers begin at age two.
We know from the 2020 CASJE study, Exploring Associations Between Jewish Early Care, Education and Engagement, not only that parents are in need of childcare but the birth of a first child is one of the two most significant entry points for future Jewish institutional involvement. However, there has been minimal effort to meet the needs of young parents and have Jewish-based infant care in their communities.
One reason is because of the logistical challenges to expanding infant care. Due to the high ratios needed to care for young babies, it is expensive. There are many institutions with minimal space to create infant rooms. We see this as a particular challenge to Jewish infant care available in urban areas where many Jewish families are living when they begin parenthood. Infant care is incredibly expensive for parents and it is hard to recruit qualified care professionals to work with babies for often minimum wage salaries.
As shared on a recent episode of NPR’s Planet Money, “According to a recent report from the United States Treasury, more than 60% of families can’t afford the full cost of high quality daycare. Meanwhile, daycare owners can barely afford to stay open. No one is happy.” We know the economics of the system of care are currently flawed, which is why we need deep philanthropic investment from the Jewish community to support parents access the high quality Jewish care for which they are yearning.
A few Jewish communities have responded to the lack of infant care
There are a few Jewish communities that have responded to the dearth of infant care. Recently, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles created grants to help facilitate local interest in growing Infant Care Centers that would be embodied in existing institutions. This helped create The Hive at the Westside JCC, which is, “the only licensed Jewish center-based infant care program in the mid-city area.” This program is exciting but it is not enough.
We need more spaces for infants across the country near the neighborhoods where young families live, which us often near urban centers that may be far away from synagogues and other traditional Jewish institutions. This limits their access to Jewish childcare and to Jewish engagement opportunities such as parenting classes, tot-Shabbat and holiday programming.
Mark Rosen researched how proximity to childcare was one of the leading factors in making decisions about where to choose childcare in his study, How Jews Choose: A Study of Early Childhood Decisions Among Jewish Parents in Greater Boston. He found that, “Parents consider hours, location and cost first. Other factors enter into the decision process only after a particular preschool has been found to meet parents’ practical requirements.”
Our community needs to recognize that for families with young children, location is essential. In order to engage and connect with this demographic we need to make stronger efforts to bring early childhood care, education and engagement opportunities to the neighborhoods where young families are living.
Sarah Wasser in Cambridge M.A. has been searching for Jewish daycare options for her six-month-old. There are no options that meet her needs in her local community, which is a neighborhood where many young adults are starting their families.
She shared that an answer to this challenge could be a network of infant centers that are connected to one another. “I love the intimacy of an in-home care option and see it as a great way to build Jewish community among the parents, like having Kabbalat Shabbat at Friday pick up. I wonder if the centers could share resources such as administrative and curriculum development if it could make it viable for more people to open their homes.” These home centers could be feeders to larger institutions and the institutions could help support the operations and educators’ benefits necessary to run an infant center.
Creating infant centers separate from or part of, existing Jewish early childhood options would help fulfill a need that is critical for young Jewish families. Expanding our infant care would help engage families who otherwise aren’t connected to Jewish communities and would help engage them both with Jewish institutions and each other, creating webs of support at a time when families are truly seeking community.
There is a huge opportunity to prioritize the care and education of our youngest children. In order to prioritize the engagement of the next generation of our Jewish community, we need to focus on our youngest members: our babies.
The writer is a community early childhood and family engagement consultant at The Jewish Education Project.