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Board Member Spotlight: Josh Rifkin

Tell me a little about yourself, where you work, and your role there?

I’ve been an early childhood educator at the Staenberg-Loup Jewish Community Center for 11 years now, and this year I took on a new position as a Nature and Technology Specialist. My new role has allowed me to nurture and encourage the relationship between young children and the natural world with the hopes of inspiring the next generation of stewards. In my position, I give lots of thought to leading children and educators in caring for garden spaces,  facilitating inquiry-based discussions, bridging the disconnect that children have with their food, and encouraging children to look through a sustainability lens.

The technology part of my position was born out of the lessons educators learned during lockdown and later applied to in-person learning. I believe that developmentally appropriate applications of technology can support story acting, expand play, develop partnerships with families, foster intergenerational experiences, open windows to near and far off places, offer alternative perspectives and provide children an opportunity for reflection.

In both parts of my position, I collaborate with classroom teachers and children to design intentional learning experiences that incorporate the principles of seamless Judaism, 21st Century learning, and developmentally appropriate practices.

Last December, I completed my Director’s Certificate, and this year, I finished a 3-year fellowship with the Sheva Learning Institute. The fellowship gave me opportunities to study excellence in early learning around the world and a platform to think with educators working across the country in other JCCs.

I am the father of two boys, ages 6 and 11, and my wife also works in Jewish Early Childhood Education.

How did you get started in early childhood education?

Almost 20 years ago, I met my Israeli wife in Chang Mai, Thailand. I followed her to Israel and became a citizen. Initially, I struggled to find ways to support myself until a friend of mine in my Ulpan class ( a government-sponsored language program for new immigrants) asked me if I had ever considered working with children. I told her I knew nothing about children but was open. She introduced me to a lovely Israeli family, and the next thing I knew, I was caring for two girls, an infant and a four-year-old. Their mother had a deep understanding of early childhood which I found infinitely interesting. When I left Israel, she encouraged me to pursue a career in early childhood.

How has mentorship played a role in your staying and growing in early childhood education?

In my career, I’ve been fortunate to have been mentored by some extraordinarily talented and gifted early childhood professionals. They have supported me in different ways at different times in my career. For example, some of them have supported my hunger to understand constructivist thinking, Reggio-inspired philosophy, and early childhood education pedagogy; others have deepened my understanding of organizational systems and leadership dynamics.

I am confident my longevity as an ECE educator is directly connected to my mentors and the time they took to coach me through sticky moments, helping me see possibilities in challenges that lay in front of me and connecting me to the right resources to move me forward on my professional path. Still, the most powerful thing they did for me was to stand with me in a reflective space where I could discover my strengths and internalize my system of values. That process was transformative and gave me agency and a compass; this is the greatest gift one human can give to another.

What excites you about being part of the Efshar Project board?

Efshar in Hebrew  translates to “possible.” Over the last decade, this organization represented to me all that is “possible” in the field. It’s no secret that early childhood is in a moment of crisis, and Efshar has the opportunity to think creatively about the solutions. To be a servant to this mission and a voice representing other educators and to do it with professionals and lay leaders that are not only passionate about protecting the field but bring a diverse list of experiences and talents is an honor.