Jewish Federations of North America are proud to partner with JCC Association of North America and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) in an innovative, collaborative initiative to transform the field of early childhood Jewish education (ECJE).
The initiative—known by its working title, Project-412—takes its name from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Ancestors) 4:12, in which we read: “Let the honor of your student be as dear to you as your own, and the honor of your colleague as the reverence for your teacher, and the reverence for your teacher as the reverence of heaven.”
Project-412 brings together these three prominent Jewish organizations to collaborate with funders, practitioners, educators, and community leaders to break the logjam on the critical shortage of qualified early childhood educators and elevate the field of early childhood Jewish education in North America. The initiative is launching as a three-year pilot focusing on recruiting, training, and credentialing up to 30 new educators in 14 pioneer communities.
Jewish Federations of North America President & CEO Eric Fingerhut said, “Providing as many Jewish children and their families as possible with the opportunity to grow and develop in a Jewish early childhood education program is critical and is the foundation for lifelong Jewish engagement and learning. When complex talent challenges in the field are preventing this from happening, we believe the best response is a big, bold, and deep collaboration, meeting the challenges together, across systems. Jewish Federations are proud to work side by side with JCC Association and the URJ in this innovative initiative to remove these barriers for our families and children, and we know we have a talented and professional team to lead us.”
Orna Siegel, MJEd, and Sasha Kopp, MAJE, MAJNM, have been appointed to lead this bold initiative. They will begin their tenure with JCC Association on June 5.
Siegel, the inaugural executive director, brings more than two decades of experience in Jewish education and distinguished leadership in the Jewish day school field to the role. Throughout her career, she has worked closely with ECJE centers and understands their essential role in drawing young families into Jewish communal life. She served most recently as the director of enrollment at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, and previously held senior positions at JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School, and Gann Academy in Waltham, Massachusetts. Siegel earned a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University, a master’s degree in Jewish education from Hebrew College, and is pursuing a doctorate in education at the Davidson School at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She serves on numerous boards in the Jewish community and beyond and is a former member of the boards of both the JCC and Jewish Federation in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Reflecting on her new role, Siegel said, “I have spent my career working to ensure educated and engaged families are part of the Jewish future, and I am inspired by the mission and challenge of Project-412. I believe deeply in the transformative power of early childhood Jewish education and understand the complex factors that currently prevent these centers from serving more families. I am honored and energized to be a part of this project and to work to dramatically improve the long-term engagement of young families in communal life through the on-ramp of ECJE.”
Kopp joins Project-412 as its senior director, Education and Engagement, and will provide guidance, direction, and support to participating communities throughout all phases of the initiative. She brings to this role more than 10 years of professional expertise and dedication to the field’s growth and evolution. Kopp previously held positions as a classroom educator, assistant director of ECJE at Central Synagogue, and adjunct professor at American Jewish University. Most recently, she served as the early childhood and family engagement consultant at The Jewish Education Project (TJEP), where she founded an educational fellowship for emerging educators, designed national professional development initiatives, facilitated networks of early childhood directors, and represented TJEP at national ECJE gatherings. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University and master’s degrees in Jewish education and nonprofit management from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Kopp is a sought-after speaker and a highly respected voice on ECJE topics across the Reform and JCC movements and other early childhood networks.
Upon joining the initiative, Kopp said, “Project-412 can revolutionize the future of Jewish life across North America by investing in our Jewish early childhood educators. Through the support of legacy organizations and major foundations, this initiative will harness the power of Jewish early childhood education and demonstrate the value of our early childhood educators on the larger Jewish communal landscape.”
Project-412 is governed by representatives of the initiative’s partners, JCC Association, Jewish Federations, and the URJ, and Siegel and Kopp will formally be part of the JCC Association professional team.
Doron Krakow, JCC Association President and CEO, said, “JCC Association is extraordinarily proud to embark on an effort whose success will enable the Jewish community to add thousands of young families to the ranks of its early childhood Jewish education programs, the preeminent gateway for engaging such families at a critical juncture in their lives. Our partnership with two vital and venerable players on the landscape of Jewish life is a model worthy of replication and offers countless ways to bring complementary talents and resources to bear in pursuit of something better for the entire Jewish community. In Orna and Sasha, we have found exemplary leaders for this remarkable endeavor.”
According to the CASJE study, early childhood Jewish education provides families with essential access to deep, long-term involvement in Jewish life. However, only 12-15% of families in North America enroll their children in such programs. Together, the JCC and Reform movements operate 475 early childhood centers that serve more than 65,000 young children and their families. Tens of thousands more remain on long waiting lists because of the critical shortage of qualified, trained educators. Project-412 will ultimately expand the ECJE system's capacity to serve significantly greater numbers of children and families, inspiring new and lasting connections to the Jewish community.
The project is generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, Crown Family Philanthropies, and the Samuels Family Foundation; together, they have committed an initial investment of $8.5 million. Additional funding will be secured in each pioneer community, bringing the total investment to $12 million by the end of 2025. According to Jeremy Samuels of the Samuels Family Foundation and JCC Association board member, “Our family is honored to be part of Project-412, both nationally and locally, and we're thrilled with both hires. Each brings an impressive track record of success and deep commitment to Jewish education that will serve the project well.”
“Early childhood education is probably the largest gateway into Jewish life and Project-412 is a bold, strategic initiative to strengthen our ECJE networks,” added Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the URJ. “That’s when most Jewish families with young children are at the decision point as to whether they will engage with Judaism and the Jewish community. Investing in the professionals who nurture and inspire our young students and their families will surely increase Jewish engagement and build a vibrant Jewish future.”