Back when she was a counselor at Camp Ramah Darom, Anna Hartman took one look at the Torah service there and decided it needed some mixing up. “Everything at camp should be about fun, and it wasn’t,” she says, describing efforts to create a more energetic and participatory service. “Sure, there are things you must do, like Torah, but there is every reason to look for new ways to do them.”
In the spirit of her generation, Hartman uses the word “hack” to capture the rethinking of existing methods to address 21st century realities and challenges. It’s an approach that’s wired into her DNA and, she says, it’s particularly useful in Jewish Early Childhood Education, which she aims to elevate as a vibrant and critical portal into Jewish identity and community.
“Early childhood is a pivotal time,” she says. “When parents bring a child into the world, it changes perspectives in so many ways. If they see a quality school, it opens their eyes to possibilities, especially if they have a neutral view of Jewish community and practice to begin with.”
Her stage now is The Paradigm Project, an outgrowth of The Covenant Foundation’s Jewish Early Child Education (JECEI) Fellowship. With four other former JECEI fellows who founded the initiative, Hartman is reimagining the field by creating a nationwide movement of Jewish early childhood educators, developing communities of practice to share new strategies and methods, and advocating for increased attention and funding.
“Overall, the field needs attention,” she says. “If we don’t bolster quality, then we will lose faculty and families and the entire community will be at risk.”
In just three years, The Paradigm Project has created momentum for the field, boasting five communities of practice across the country, a dynamic and continuing webinar series for educators, and an active social media presence used to empower and engage hundreds of practitioners. A multi-day national conference for Jewish early childhood educators is set to take place in April.
Partners and collaborators describe Hartman as a born leader – one who can envision change, inspire others to break molds, and set up practical road maps – key skills to advance this educational niche.
“She has big dreams and is not afraid to engage people to make them reality,” says Ellen Dietrick, Director of Early Childhood Learning at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA, and one of The Paradigm Project’s principals. “She is down there on the ground, recognizing where people are, enabling and empowering them to take one step at a time toward greater change.”
In December, The Paradigm Project launched #Festival of Light, an initiative encouraging early childhood educators to break free of more tried Chanukah projects and develop new ones to bring the wonder of light and shadows into classrooms and schools. The program, conceived of and driven by Hartman, was a huge success, as dozens of educators took the challenge and shared ideas and results on social media.
“The traditional approach is for children to make a paper menorah,” says Dietrick. “That is just so close-ended and children learn nothing from that. Anna’s idea was to be more creative, collaborative and progressive and help educators imagine big ideas and abandon cookie-cutter ways of doing things. This has happened over and over and it’s cumulatively energizing the field.”
In 2011, when Hartman was awarded the Pomegranate Prize she was in the process of transitioning to Boston from Atlanta, where she directed the Early Childhood Education program at what is now the Atlanta Jewish Academy. There, she developed and put in place initiatives that changed the face and reach of the program, including Hebrew immersion, arts education, project-based learning, and infant and toddler care.
“I’ve been amazed at her insight into what needs to be done and her readiness to apply new ideas to move educators, schools, and the entire field forward,” says Lyndall Miller, Director of the Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute. “She is courageous and doesn’t worry about failure, only potential for success. She possesses the rare combination of taking action without the need for credit, which is the model of a leader and change maker.”
Considering her impact on the field in a relatively short amount of time, it is notable that Hartman entered Jewish Early Child Education somewhat obliquely. With a degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Emory University in hand, she found herself in the nation’s capital working at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and contemplating a related graduate degree.
But feeling unfulfilled as a policy wonk, she took a position as a substitute teacher at the nearby Jewish Primary Day School. Within a year, she was teaching Hebrew full time to four-year-olds.
“I had no idea that I wanted to be a Jewish educator,” she says. “But I sensed from the beginning that there is great potential for making real change. And once I did, I knew I was in the right place.”
Pomegranate Prize support allowed Hartman to complete a graduate degree in Jewish Education, focusing on leadership, and to get first-hand exposure in Italy to the Reggio Emilia approach to Early Childhood Education, one that is often a model for programming in the United States.
“The Prize recognized me and validated my work and potential, and represented a major moment in my evolution as a professional,” she says, also citing the development and connections that the three-year Pomegranate program afforded her.
As she views the landscape of Jewish Early Childhood Education, Hartman sees huge potential to make impact and to empower practitioner-activists in the field to make this segment of Jewish education uniformly strong and vital.
“There is so much that is positive about big ideas,” she says. “When I, as a Jewish educator, can get involved with these big ideas and harness creativity and energy to build a world around them, that excites me, that is the sweet spot.”