Early Engagement: One More Compelling Reason
by Emily Aronoff Teck
I have the unique privilege of living a life beyond my wildest dreams as an early childhood Jewish music educator. I couldn’t imagine a better career. I sing, dance and play for living – then I get snacks and hugs and go home. I find my work enjoyable, challenging and important. I didn’t start my professional life with these goals in mind, but I resolutely believe that my role in the early engagement of young families with a Judaism that is developmentally appropriate to each member is an important role in the future of an active Jewish life – and that the role I’m playing is the role that was meant for me. The impetus for my mission in life? A conversation that lasted a few seconds that while I sat cross-legged on a colorful carpet with a child who had fingers covered with the orange glow of cheezballs.
I was, at the time, an after-school pre-kindergarten teacher at a Jewish preschool. I kept children amused and safe after school ended until their parents left their jobs to pick them up. The little girl with whom I had this life-altering conversation was a recent graduate of the institution that employed me, and she was there to pick up her brother. I asked, “What is different between this school and your kindergarten?” She thought for a moment, and responded initially about where she ate her lunch and the friends from preschool that were not at the new school (she was a talkative child).
Then she said, “Well, there are no hugs allowed. And God isn’t allowed, either.”
My heart dropped.
Her words haunted me. The fact that she was correct in the simplest description of her academic environment devastated me. In the public school system, the separation of church and state means that school is not a place where teachers can foster any sort of spiritual or religious development (and I’m not advocating for merging them). While this student’s school is more extreme than others, worries over potential allegations of inappropriate touching had led to a school-wide ban on physical contact. In early elementary school, when children are so ripe for the sharing of pure affection and honest conversations about God, they are cut away from the opportunity to publicly do so for the majority of their day.
What to do? I embarked upon a mission of creating positive association with the Jewish community, sharing resources with parents that would enable them to celebrate their Judaism with their children in an easy and enjoyable way, and giving very young children a language that will help them access their religion in an independent way.
My Judaism and my relationship with God are simultaneously very personal and public. I model gratitude, prayer, and Jewishly inspired joy whenever I have the opportunity. I hope that my work will nurture children to access their developing Judaism that will sustain them through the hours and days when they are instructed that their natural instincts to talk about God are not appropriate. I pray that my work will be for the good of the child who gets a Jewish song stuck in her head appropriate to the Jewish holiday on the horizon, the parent that discovers Jewish music with musical qualities they truly enjoy enough to listen to recreationally and in the car while driving their child, and the community that needs these young families engaged in order to stay alive.
“Miss” Emily Aronoff Teck is a Jewish music educator who believes wholeheartedly in the power of informal education and utilizes music as her tool of choice. Her primary career focus is early engagement of young Jewish children and their families through developmentally appropriate, enjoyable and meaningful musical experiences. Visit www.missemilycelebrates.com for more.