On their second date, Mike Sloan told his wife-to-be,
Maria, that he wanted their children to be raised Jewish.
This came as a surprise to then-Catholic Maria, whose
future husband, a Jew, had been raised in a household so
devoid of Judaism that he hadn't even had a bar mitzvah
"The nerve," she said laughingly in an interview last week,
recalling that perplexing episode from 18 years ago. "On the
other hand, it meant that something culturally Jewish was
And there was. That spark of latent Yiddishkeit eventually
fanned into an enduring flame of Jewish observance. But the
catalyst for that awakening can be traced back to an event
that seemed religiously inconsequential at the time ----the
young couple's decision to enroll their daughter, Sarah, in a
neighborhood preschool. It happened to be Jewish.
"Looking back, it really was quite life-altering," said
Maria, 45, a Chevy Chase resident. "If we hadn't entered that
building, I cannot imagine how all the stars would have
aligned so well."
The building in question was the Gan HaYeled Nursery School
of Conservative Adas Israel Congregation in the District. By
enrolling Sarah there, the Sloans unwittingly tapped into a
reserve of Jewish tradition and ritual they had never before
been exposed to.
In the process, they inverted the deeply embedded precept
that Jewish knowledge is transmitted almost exclusively from
parent to child, a trickle-down phenomenon.
The Sloans, instead, were the beneficiaries of bubble-up
Judaism. By schlepping home crafts projects and other
introductory materials related to holidays and Shabbat, Sarah
initially served as the family's educational emissary. She
helped inject Jewish content into the Sloan home for the first
time. This, in turn, spawned even more substantive efforts on
the part of her parents to bond with the Jewish community.
"I definitely hear parents report this to me all the time,"
said Shelley Remer, director of Gan HaYeled, commonly known as
"the Gan." "They are surprised at how involved they become as
a family. Eventually, their lives really revolve around Jewish
At a time when many Jewish families with young children
have only a tenuous connection with their faith,
reverse-osmosis Judaism has become a natural byproduct of
Jewish preschools, according to several local educators.
"I can't even begin to count how many times I've heard
about this," said Paula Slavsky, director of the preschool at
Reform Congregation Beth Emeth in Herndon. "My goal is to get
families involved, and a majority do. I try to connect people,
and it's wonderful to see it come to fruition."
The same phenomenon has even been observed at Silver Spring
Learning Center, an Orthodox preschool that accepts children
of all backgrounds.
"It's not uncommon at all," said the school's director,
Debbie Ungar. "We've seen families become more interested in
Judaism and become part of the community through their kids.
It's wonderful. It's exciting for everyone."
Families who have established a connection with Judaism
through their children come from many backgrounds. Some are
interfaith couples. Others were once involved Jewishly, but
became disconnected from their roots. In each instance,
though, the birth of a child awakened a desire to reconnect,
explore Judaism for the first time, or at least provide their
son or daughter with a solid Judaic grounding.
For David and Leslie Clesner of Silver Spring, the impetus
to grow Jewishly was the birth of their twin daughters, Heidi
and Delaney, now 5. They attend Silver Spring Learning Center.
"We wanted them to be exposed to Jewish things that they
wouldn't necessarily be exposed to at home," said Leslie, 35,
a professional organizer, who celebrated the major holidays
during her formative years and had a bat mitzvah ceremony.
Still, her basic Jewish knowledge base was lacking. Her
husband, also 35, came from a mixed background. His father is
Jewish and his mother is not; David did not have a bar mitzvah
Clesner said her twins have served as an invaluable conduit
of Judaism, providing information on how to perform certain
rituals and how to celebrate some lesser-known holidays. "I
was thrilled last year when my children knew the prayers for
lighting the Chanukah candles," she said. "I would never have
been able to teach them that."
Clesner, whose 2-year-old son, Parker, is also enrolled at
Silver Spring Jewish Center, said she now lights Chanukah
candles and even celebrates Purim, "which I never would have
done without Jewish preschool." She said she hopes to expand
the family's range of Jewish observance.
Theresa and Bill Schuster of Herndon were only minimally
involved Jewishly when their daughter, Sarah, reached toddler
age. "We wanted her to feel like she had a religion," said
Theresa, 48, who converted to Judaism 11 years ago when she
was pregnant with Sarah, her only child. "The time to create
memories is when they're young."
With that in mind, the Schusters enrolled Sarah in the Beth
Emeth preschool, which promptly showered the family with
Jewish content. The Schusters soon realized that failure to
participate in their daughter's Jewish education actively
would be counterproductive, if not hypocriticial.
"If you want your child to grow up Jewish, you've got to do
it, too," Theresa Schuster said, so she and her husband
plunged in, learning about Jewish traditions and rituals along
with their daughter, while applying that knowledge when
possible. "It felt alien at first, but each time we practiced,
it felt a little less alien."
Today, some eight years after Sarah was first enrolled, her
mother teaches Sunday school at Beth Emeth ("It's my first
year, and I love it"), family members regularly perform
social-justice-related mitzvot, and they've become mainstays
at Shabbat services. "We orient our lives around going to
temple," Schuster said.
District residents Katie Benton-Cohen and her husband, Hal
Cohen, both 36, have not yet reached that plateau, but their
4-year-old son, Julius, does serve as a Jewish role model of
He attends the nondenominational Washington DC Jewish
Community Center Preschool, where is learning the rudiments of
Hebrew, among other things. "He's inspired me to take a Hebrew
class at the JCC," said Benton-Cohen, a professor of history
at Georgetown University in the District. "I knew I'd be
playing catchup to him. He's inspired me to try to increase my
Jewish education to keep up with him."
In some cases, the beneficiaries of bubble-up Judaism were
initially seeking anything but a transformative Jewish
experience. They placed their child in a Jewish preschool
mainly because it was conveniently located and had a good
reputation as an educational institution. That the school was
Jewish was a secondary consideration at best.
That was the case with the Sloans, who chose Gan HaYeled
largely because it was located near their home and was
recommended by a friend, a non-Jewish educator. Eventually,
though, the Sloans began incorporating elements of their
daughter's schooling. "I found it very appealing and fun,"
said Mike Sloan, a communications lawyer. "Slowly, it became
more and more a part of our lives."
However, Sarah's emergence as a mini-educator was only the
beginning of a much more involved process, her parents
conceded. Like many other similarly situated Jews, they also
benefited from preschool and synagogue programs that directly
involved them in celebrations of Shabbat and holidays and
otherwise boosted their Jewish IQ.
The Sloans' Jewish growth was further enhanced through
friendships they made with other preschool families
----including those who were more observant -- who welcomed
the newcomers into the Jewish community, often over Shabbat
The Sloans, who both participated in b'nai mitzvah
ceremonies a few years ago, now keep Shabbat and maintain a
kosher home. Their two children (Sarah is now 14 and Soledad
is 10) both attend Camp Ramah (a Conservative movement
institution) and go to religious school at Adas Israel. Maria,
who converted to Judaism in 2000, served as the chief
attendant at the Adas mikvah from 2002 to 2006.
Her husband, meanwhile, now studies Talmud regularly, leads
prayer services Tuesday mornings at Adas and often at the
homes of mourners. He also serves as the gabbai of the Shabbat
chavurah minyan that meets at Adas twice a month.
As for Sarah, she had this observation: "Judaism is now
such a big part of my life that I don't know what I'd do
without it. It was cool that I was the one that helped get my
family into it more."