An inspiring evening with Dr. Debbie Findling

On September 22, 11 graduates from the first cohort of the Certificate Program in Jewish Early Childhood Education through Gratz College proudly accepted their diplomas. Funded by the JCF's Endowment Fund along with the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the program began two years ago under the Jewish Community Federation's Early Childhood Education Initiative, and marks the first endeavor in professionalizing the field of Early Childhood Jewish Education in the Bay Area. Dr. Debbie Findling, keynote speaker for the evening, inspired everyone in the room with her moving speech. We share her remarks below in hopes that it will ignite within you what was felt that evening. Special thanks to Dr. Findling for allowing us to share her words.

Dr. Debbie Findling: I’ve worked in the field of Jewish education for over 25 years. I have so many degrees that at one time my student loans were nearly the size of the national debt. And yet, I am an accidental Jewish educator.

When I look back at my career, I’m not sure how I ended up here. I grew up in an assimilated home. My Holocaust survivor father didn’t reject Judaism because of the Holocaust; he was robbed of it by the Nazis. He became an orphan when he was 8 years old, hid in the forests of southern France for several years until he was rescued and brought to the U.S. and placed in a foster home where he was not exposed to Judaism or Jewish life. He didn’t know what it meant to be a Jew or how to practice Judaism. And so he didn’t. My mother grew up in Casablanca, Morocco where the culture and politics of her country forced Jews to hide their Judaism. When she moved to the United States after marrying my father, she too didn’t know how to be Jewish. So, my parents raised my brothers and me in a suburb of Detroit where they practiced the Judaism they saw around.

It had two major premises:

  1. Go to synagogue once a year on Rosh HaShana. Buy an expensive new outfit and a fabulous hat; spend most of the time in the lobby chatting with friends.
  2. Send your kids to religious school no matter how much they complained. But I was clever and convinced my parents to let me drop out when I was in 3rd grade. That ended my Jewish education.

In my early 20's, fresh out of college with a highly unmarketable degree in Women’s Studies, I was hired at a Jewish Community Center as the director of the teen program – a job for which I was totally unprepared. I was responsible for a region spanning three states, involving more than 500 teens, supervising three paid staff and 20 volunteers. My job description included overseeing a six figure operating budget, representing the community, planning all Jewish educational programming, and serving as a spiritual guide and Jewish mentor. I knew absolutely nothing about budgeting, supervision, organizational development, management, educational theory or pedagogy.

More importantly, I knew almost nothing about being a Jewish educator. My Jewish content knowledge was limited to the handful of things I remembered from my childhood, including the dreidel song and eating round challah on Rosh HaShana, though I wasn’t quite sure why it was supposed to be round. My only qualification was that I had a natural rapport with teens, but, while I was good at connecting with teens, I was fairly ineffective at inspiring, encouraging or helping them to explore their own Jewish identity. I didn’t have the knowledge or skills. I didn’t even know where to start.

After feeling like an imposter for nearly 10 years in the field of Jewish education, in my late 20's I decided to get real. I applied to graduate school at the University of Judaism. One of the questions on the application was to describe my Jewish educational background. I wrote about Mrs. Pont, my nursery school teacher at Congregation Shaarey Zedek – the synagogue preschool I attended when I was three years old. I wrote that my preschool felt like home and Mrs. Pont was like comfort food. I went on to receive three graduate degrees in Jewish education.

Last year, I took my then nine year old daughter to Detroit to spend Rosh Hashana with my family. We went to services at Sharey Zedek. I walked in and there was Mrs. Pont who I hadn’t seen in nearly 45 years. Although I didn’t know it when I was three, she had planted in me the seeds that would become a fundamental guide in my Jewish journey.

Each of us has followed a different path on the road to becoming a Jewish educator. Sometimes we knew where we were heading. We had a clear plan and knew the routes to get us there. Other times, we wandered. Not quite sure which path to take or where it would lead, but we trusted the instinctual GPS in our mind. All of us go on journeys. Some are intentional. Some unintentional. I was a Jewish educator by accident. And I wasn’t very good at it, until I intentionally decided to become a Jewish educator, and then I actually started to succeed.

But Judaism, Jewish life, Jewish identity are too important to be left to accidents. Participating in the Gratz Certificate program in Jewish ECE was your road map. Each of you chose to follow the map and to walk intentionally on the path of your professional journey. Over the past two years, you have put in countless hours and effort engaging in a rigorous course of study to transform you from preschool teacher to Early Childhood Jewish Educator; from learner to scholar; from participant in the community to leader. But I suspect you didn’t do it just for yourselves. In becoming early childhood educators, scholars and leaders, YOU elevate the entire field of Early Childhood Education. You went on a journey, so that you can help guide other people’s children on their Jewish journeys. Your commitment to Jewish education is no accident. And your commitment to planting the seeds that will grow inside the children in our preschools to guide them on the path of their own budding journey is no accident.

Today we celebrate and honor you at this siyyum. Siyyum in Hebrew means completion. As you graduate from the Gratz College program, you complete one journey – of professional and personal development. But unlike 25 years ago, I know why the Rosh Hashana challah is round. It’s a metaphor, for the continuous cycle of life. As one year ends, another begins. As this Rosh Hashana approaches, one journey for you ends, and its dawn brings a new journey. As one door closes, another opens, and the key to opening the door is to do it with kavanah – with intention.

Mazal tov to you on your siyyum – your completion of one journey. All of us here this afternoon look forward to the remarkable impact you’ll make in Early Childhood Jewish Education on whatever path you take on your next journey. Shana Tova u’metukah – I am confident that the New Year will be sweet.


October 24, 2011


The Federation