by Gabrielle Birkner

Motherhood in the “Lean In” Era

Great expense, great expectations

Similarly, the ubiquitous synagogue nursery schools are starting to morph into “early learning” centers offering full-day care. The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) is encouraging more of its 900 North American synagogues to reevaluate their existing preschool programs. The organization has designed an 18-month course for synagogues looking to develop a more “comprehensive approach to early childhood education,” and another for those exploring ways to engage more young families in synagogue life. Both look at how providing full-day care for children may fit into that equation—despite the daunting financial planning, real estate retrofitting and state licensing that may be involved.

Congregational preschools have long provided a gateway to synagogue involvement. But preschool enrollment declined during this last economic downturn, when many parents had to return to work and were looking for full-day care. Reform movement leaders worried about a ripple effect. “It’s not just about early childcare,” said Cathy Rolland, URJ’s director of early childhood education and young family engagement. “It’s about the synagogue’s focus on the next generation, and realizing that we need these synagogues to be filled up with these young families.”

Out of this need, two Reform synagogues, Temple Israel of New Rochelle in Westchester County, N.Y., and Sherith Israel in San Francisco, are embracing a novel idea: they’ve joined forces with Bright Horizons, a for-profit daycare chain, to develop full-day programs. The URJ and the UJA-Federation of New York have also had initial talks with Bright Horizons about bringing daycare centers to other Jewish institutions.

Temple Israel’s program, Kehillah, opened in 2011 with a $2 million investment from the synagogue. So far, the program, which accepts infants as young as six weeks, has served 85 children. Tuition ranges from $830 to more than $2,100 a month per child, depending on the amount of care needed. A free synagogue membership is part of the deal.

“When [my husband and I] bought the house, we knew finding childcare would be the most important thing,” said Amy Klein, 37, who enrolled her two young daughters in Kehillah when the family moved to Scarsdale, N.Y., last year. “Finding a temple was lower down on the list. It was nice that we could have it all together, and become part of the community. We’ve become friendly with a lot of the other young families.”

Temple Israel is banking on Kehillah families forming close ties within the congregation. “When we decided to do infant care,” Nancy Bossov, Kehillah’s director, told The New York Jewish Week, “it was with the understanding that if we wait until the child is two years old, the parents already have their friends and family patterns down—and temple won’t be a part of it.”

Another Reform institution, The Temple–Tifereth Israel’s Ganon Gil preschool in Beachwood, Ohio, transitioned to a full-day infant and toddler program earlier this year. The move followed an 18-month study of the congregation’s efforts to engage young families. It “opened our eyes to the fact that we were not meeting the needs of everyone, with families going back to work earlier than they [once] were,” the school’s director, Lori Kowit, said.

A $50,000 grant from the Cleveland Foundation helped cover the cost of retrofitting classrooms, purchasing equipment, bringing on additional staff and marketing the program. State funding has allowed Ganon Gil to provide tuition assistance to qualifying families of children ages 3–5; families making up to 400% of federal poverty—up to $94,200 a year for a family of four—receive a 33% discount.

Not unexpectedly, expanding its early childhood offerings has been a boon for Ganon Gil. In September, the partial-day preschool opened with just 27 students—35 under capacity. “We could not possibly accommodate to that [half-day] schedule,” said Megan Reich, a Cleveland-based museum curator, who enrolled her two toddlers at Ganon Gil as soon as the full-day option became available. Since extending its hours and opening the program to infants in early 2013, enrollment has jumped to 48 youngsters (as of press time), and Ganon Gil is operating in the black, Kowit said.

But daycare can be longer-term investment for a synagogue, said Maxine Handelman, an early childhood education consultant at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “Some people think it’s going to be a big moneymaker, when it will likely cost the synagogue,” given the high caregiver-to-child ratio most states mandate for infant care, she said.

Like their Reform movement counterparts, scores of Conservative-affiliated congregational schools have extended their hours since the recession’s onset. The transition to full-day care often challenges a preschool’s longstanding teaching culture, said Handelman. “Sometimes there’s resistance from the director on down,” she said. “They may say, ‘I signed up to run a nine-to-two school, and I’m not so sure that I want to work till 6 o’clock every night’.”

In addition, schools may have to alter their expectations of parental participation during the school day. They may see an influx of non-Jewish students whose parents are drawn to the hours, not to the religious environment. And among institutions that hew closer to halakha, daycare hours and staffing on Jewish holidays, and as Shabbat approaches on Fridays, can be challenging.

“I wrestle with it,” Judith Rose of Miami’s Bet Breira School wrote, on a USCJ listserv, of the early childhood center’s decision to stay open Fridays until 6 p.m. “Realistically if I closed [at] four each Friday during the winter months, I would lose the majority of the families who depend on aftercare. We use the staff willing to work these hours, even though it is Shabbat. Some are Jewish, some are not.”

Chabad-Lubavitch, which also reports a major expansion into full-day childcare, noted that while most such programs end early on Fridays, some allow for a seamless transition from daycare to youth Shabbat programming after sundown.


The new push for full-day childcare under Jewish organizational roofs provides the necessary structure. But what about the means to pay for all these hours? Think back to
the dilemma faced by parents like Ronit Sherwin and Joanna Smith Rakoff.

Four decades after Nixon’s veto of the daycare bill, per-child infant care costs are more than 10 percent of the median household income for a married couple in most states, according to a recent report from Child Care Aware of America; in New York State, where childcare costs are some of the highest, that number nears 16 percent, some $14,000 a year. In single-parent households, the expense can be even more onerous, equivalent to about 50% of median household income in many states. Full-time toddler care is only slightly less expensive.

It’s de rigueur in some areas to pay more than double that $14,000 average for a full-time nanny. Add to that Social Security and Medicare taxes, workers’ compensation and disability insurance, and health insurance—because at $30,000 a year, the nanny is unlikely to qualify for Medicaid—the cost goes way up. Many families who want to do right by their nannies—and who remember the trouble that paying help “off the books” caused for politically ambitious women (see Zoë Baird and Nancy Killefer)—say they just can’t afford to do everything aboveboard. “From the employer’s perspective, it is more difficult and costly, and from the employee’s side of things, it can mean losing really important benefits” from the government, said a Brooklyn, N.Y. mother of two who pays her nanny “off the books.”

For now, when it comes to childcare, most of the Jewish communal efforts are focused on daycare (though Jews for Racial & Economic Justice has pushed to improve working
conditions for nannies and other domestic workers). “There’s a real need for funders to step up to the plate,” said the JCCA’s Mark Horowitz, noting that scholarship options that do exist are often insufficient.

One potential funder is UJA-Federation of New York, now scouting New York-area synagogues and community centers primed for an expansion into daycare.

“Knowing that this is a big issue all families are grappling with—how to work, to make a living, and to do all the important things families need to do, we’re beginning to explore the idea of Jewish daycare,” said Melanie Schneider, senior planning executive for UJA-Federation’s Commission on Jewish Identity & Renewal.

Once identified, the Federation will help fund feasibility studies, and provide support should they decide to move forward, Schneider said. On the affordability front, the philanthropy is hoping to pilot “family daycare” programs. These home-based centers—often run by mothers with young children of their own—are generally less expensive than larger, institutional ones. UJA-Federation sees an opportunity to help these caregivers infuse their offerings with Jewish content. The Federation may also look to standardize sliding-scale tuition models.

Meanwhile, Jonah Pesner, senior vice president and second-in-command at URJ, is floating the idea of Jewish daycare as a birthright, along the lines of Birthright Israel, the popular program that sends young adults on free 10-day trips to Israel. “People are telling us, in city after city: We need help with childcare,” Pesner said.


Daycare programs and tuition subsidies are arguably as good an investment as trips to Israel. And there are fewer unknowns. Jewish children are already in the picture. Their parents need quality childcare, and help paying for it. Synagogues and community centers need to engage young families—families that look and work a whole lot different than they did a generation ago. That means overhauling existing programming models, like preschools that start at age two, and assumptions, like that one parent is always available for a noon pickup and a $2,200 a month childcare bill poses no hardship.

Leaning in necessitates not only a “will to lead,” but also a structure that supports women’s ambitions. Access to quality, affordable childcare is key. The extent to which Jewish institutions adapt to that reality seems linked, inextricably, to their ability to fill sanctuaries, schools, seminaries and synagogue boards. Linked, inextricably, to their own destiny.


Gabrielle Birkner is a writer and editor living in New York.

Motherhood in the “Lean In” Era

The articles in this special section:

  • Cheryl P. Stober

    This is a really great piece (and I’m a Ganon Gil graduate from back in the day!). My family just finished over seven years of full-time daycare through JCC programs in the Boston area, and the numbers here are even lower than the true costs. Getting my two kids, now 9 and 5, through the daycare experience was over $200K. We’ve still joined a synagogue, and now my kids attend Jewish camps, but we didn’t do day school because after paying so much just for the privilege of getting to work all these years, day school just seems like endless paying. Instead, the money we’re “saving” this year is being put towards our family’s first trip to Israel.

    I haven’t done Birthright, and I’m not against it per se, but I think it’s putting money in the wrong place. Instilling a Jewish faith and identity in my child was where “the rubber hits the road,” and providing a Jewish daycare experience is where I would have really benefited from receiving some help with expenses.

    Thanks for bringing some attention to this matter.

  • Justmytwocwnts

    Interesting how one Jewish organization offered low cost care for poor children who weren’t Jewish. Social justice begins at home. Lets provide this for our own first.

    • Gabrielle Birkner

      Perhaps I should have clarified this in my piece. These programs offer low-cost care for poor children because they are federally funded Head Start programs. By law, slots go to qualifying families.

  • Elisheva

    Day care or not, I believe that a couple must be conscious of raising a family and a woman of making a decision of divorcing and living as the sole provider for her children. What is more important to them, having a child when they are still young or mature enough to enjoy raising a new life who comes of their flesh and blood and is the product of their love as a married couple? Or, live holding on to their materialistic world and for women to prioritize their careers versus Motherhood? This is a man’s world after all and they are paid more than a woman for the same job!

    I gave up in my career and now my sons are 31 and 29 and let me tell you, I could forfeit my career, I could forfeit traveling (which I enjoyed when I was single) but certainly could not forfeit my family. This is my joy and comfort thinking of my past, now that I have reached the age of 60 years old!

    • Brrring

      Who said she was divorced? She might have been a single mother by choice. Therefore, there was no choice about working and childcare.

      • laura

        Or a widow.

  • Brrring

    As a single parent, I also worked for the Jewish Community, yet ironically could not afford the services and programs of the Jewish Community such as early childcare. I had to leave my very young child in a family day care and drive to another county to work. That is when there was childcare offered in the JCC where I worked. I think Jewish day schools, and preschools have become so expensive that it has become prohibitive except for the very wealthy. Not everyone in the Jewish Community is making big salaries even if we are “professionals.”

  • Deb

    What an innovative way to address this very pertinent issue! In Australia, the Australian Government provides subsidies to most working families to assist with the costs of childcare. Notwithstanding this, affordability remains an issue for many. However, the biggest issue is a significant shortage of available childcare places, leaving many parents waiting up to 2 years for a place for their child (It is not uncommon for parents put their unborn children on waiting lists!). When parents do get a place in an approved centre it is generally for restricted days, which in turn impacts the ability of parents (primarily mothers) re-entering the workforce. I agree, we need to implement much better structures to support women’s choices around workforce participation.