Director of Family Life & Learning, Anshe Emet Synagogue
Maxine Segal Handelman is the Director of Life & Learning at the Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago, where she has worked for almost 25 years.
In her current role, Handelman oversees High Holiday youth programming and leads the Young Family High Holiday services for several hundred people each year. In collaboration with the Educational Steering Committee, she strengthens the educational experience for all children in the community. This work includes leading Tot Shabbat, monthly Kabbalat Shabbat services and dinners, and family services. At Anshe Emet, Handelman has strived to create meaningful opportunities for families to build lifelong relationships with each other and the wider Jewish community.
“I maintain an intense desire to build a strong Jewish foundation and help craft the best possible Jewish education for every Jewish child,” she writes.
Handelman teaches young family classes as well, including Connecting the Expecting, a Jewish learning class for people expecting their first child. She supervises youth family service leaders and trains a pipeline of teens to lead youth tefillah experiences. In partnership with the clergy and educators at Anshe Emet, Handelman created, and now implements, Family Education Days for Anshe Emet families, between 300 and 400 people.
Prior to her work at Anshe Emet, Handelman served as Early Childhood Education (ECE) Specialist for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) for thirteen years. As a member of the Learning Team, she strengthened USCJ congregations and elevated the quality of Jewish education by supporting the congregations’ early childhood centers and leadership. Handelman also created and organized gatherings for early childhood directors from 250 USCJ ECE programs, providing both in-person and virtual professional development opportunities. Handelman also created USCJ’s New Directors Institute (NDI), a multi-day training seminar for early childhood directors.
Since 2003, Handelman has been a Jewish Early Childhood Consultant. In this capacity, she teaches workshops across North America on topics related to Jewish early childhood education. Handelman has also consulted with Chicagoland early childhood centers on integrating Jewish content into the daily curriculum.
Handelman has authored a number of books, which have become seminal early childhood education resources for the field, including What’s Jewish about Butterflies?: 36 Dynamic, Engaging Lessons for the Early Childhood Classroom (2004) and Jewish Every Day: The Complete Handbook for Early Childhood Teachers (2000).
From Her Letters of Nomination and Support
“A pioneer in Jewish early childhood and family education, Max opens the door for children to see the wonder that surrounds them on a daily basis and interact with it through the integration of Jewish ideas and values, in a way that speaks to their hearts and souls. A ‘teacher’s teacher,’ Max has sought to fuel the spiritual passion of Jewish teachers and challenge them to deepen their study of Jewish texts. She is a lover of all things Jewish, a passionate educator, and an innovative trailblazer.”
Rabbi Michael Siegel
Senior Rabbi, Anshe Emet Synagogue
“Max’s unique approach and major contributions to the field pushed us to explore new ways of integrating Judaism into all the experiences, activities, and events taking place daily in our early childhood classrooms. For the first time, the field of Jewish early childhood education had a shared language and vocabulary to provide guidance and support to early childhood teachers of all backgrounds and experiences. Max deepened our understanding of how to reach out to families and help them create a loving Jewish atmosphere at home that would support what their children were doing each day in the classroom.”
Cathy M. Rolland
Director of Engaging Families with Young Children, Union for Reform Judaism
“Maxine’s knowledge and creativity provided program depth and modeled exceptional teaching for USCJ’s New Directors Institute (NDI) participants. Through her insight, we added a track that brought together new early childhood directors and new educational directors for an important conversation about cooperation, to ultimately maximize learning for the students in their programs. Through Maxine’s vision of quality education, I watched as educators became inspired about important issues in congregational learning.”
Former Director of Learning and Enrichment, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Q&A with Max
For the past 25 years, Maxine (“Max”) Segal Handelman has helped transform Chicago’s Anshe Emet Synagogue into a thriving hub for young families. In addition to her work at Anshe Emet, Handelman has served in many other roles in Jewish education, including as a teacher, an early childhood education specialist for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, a Jewish early childhood consultant, and the author of two books. Three years ago, she became Anshe Emet’s first full-time Director of Family Life & Learning.
What appeals to you about working with young children?
Very young children are full of wonder. You can actually see them learning. I have two teenage daughters right now, and they’re incredible, but I can’t look at them and say, “Wow, you didn’t know how to do that yesterday.” But you can look at a baby or a toddler or a 3-year-old and say, “You didn’t know how to do that yesterday!” I find that just amazing.
How did you decide you wanted to be a Jewish educator?
The summer after my freshman year of college, I came back home to Deerfield, the Chicago suburb where I’d grown up. Pretty much by accident, I ended up working at Moriah Early Childhood Center, and I fell in love. I was already thinking about working with young children, and I loved being Jewish: I grew up in a very active Reform Jewish home, and my summers at Habonim Dror Camp Tavor were life-changing. At Moriah, these two things that I loved came together. It was this epiphany of, “This is home. This is what I need to do with my life forever.”
Working with children and families, how do you measure success?
Friendship by friendship. I want people to live full lives that are informed and enriched by Jewish values, and I know that will happen if they have friends to do it with. There’s a group of high school boys who met when they were toddlers, after their families started coming to our “Shalom Shabbat” service. The boys recently decided on their own that they wanted to make Shabbat dinner together, and they made it happen. That’s one of my crowning achievements.
You consider yourself not only an educator, but a storyteller. What do you find compelling about storytelling?
Storytelling takes people to a very magical place. It’s a beautiful way for people to connect to their Jewish souls, and it works for audiences of every age. Over the summer, a group of Anshe Emet high schoolers worked with our youth director to figure out what kind of programming they want. They said, “We want storytime with Max! Now that we’re older, we don’t get to do that anymore!” So I’m going to do a virtual storytime with high schoolers. And I’m so thrilled!
Do you have a favorite story?
I especially love telling “The Challahs in the Ark,” about a man who places freshly baked loaves beside the Torah scroll only to find, years later—well, I won’t spoil the plot. My favorite versions are Aubrey Davis’s children’s book “Bagels from Benny” and [internationally acclaimed storyteller] Syd Lieberman’s adaptation.
What advice would you give the next generation of Jewish early childhood educators?
Always keep at the forefront that your job is not just to give children an excellent education, but to build a foundation where families can become connected to Jewish life. That’s not always obvious. As an early childhood educator, you may have the child in the school all day but only bring the parents in for certain programs. The field of engaging families with young children is still slightly uncharted territory. We can help families build friendships, we can offer families Jewish know-how. And they will build Jewish community that lasts a lifetime.