Two Chabad preschools have been chosen to participate in a new pilot program aimed at creating models of excellence in Jewish childhood education. After a nationwide search, only eleven other schools were chosen to be part of this program, which is sponsored by a consortium of philanthropies that includes the Steinhardt/Jewish Life Network.
Gan Yeladim of Chabad in Stamford, CT, and the Zimmer Preschool of Chabad Jewish Center at Basking Ridge, NJ, already rank among the upper echelons of early childhood education. Both are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a sign of rigorous childcare standards. Both have maxed out their enrollments. Both are headed by educational directors who are sought-after speakers on Jewish teaching techniques. Zimmer Preschool has won raves for its innovative child-centered teaching philosophy. Pilot program evaluators were impressed with Gan Yeladim’s new building where the Rabbi’s office shares a wall with the toddler classroom. “It’s there because he never wants to forget our core purpose,” said Vivi Deren, the educational director. “The evaluators were impressed by our authentic commitment to our mission.”
The two schools were chosen for the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative’s pilot program, a multi-year plan of mentoring, coaching, retreats, and grant money, because they “stand for values of searching and seeking the best practices of early childhood education and bringing them to the classrooms–through a Jewish lens,” said Cantor Mark Horowitz, executive director of Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative (JECEI).
Chabad’s place in the community meshes nicely with one of JECEI’s chief goals to “make parents crave Jewish life past the preschool years,” said Cantor Horowitz. In Stamford, for instance, Deren and her husband, Rabbi Yisroel Deren, have long hosted a series of Jewish youth clubs, adult education and community programs to keep their preschool students and parents involved in Jewish life. When Deren heard about JECEI, she recalled thinking: “Wow! This is what we’ve been doing all along! It’s a formula that we realized only after it was up and running, but it has been our formula for years. JECEI presented the perfect opportunity to take that further.”
Through the JECEI process–visits from the program’s coach, advice from experts in early childhood education and retreats –-the two schools have been given the opportunity to reflect on their school and “bring it up a notch,” Deren said. “JECEI is not looking to make cookie cutter schools, even if it is a wonderful cookie. Their input is sharpening the saw and has helped me fine tune my own vision for the school.”
JECEI funders include the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, The S. Daniel Abraham Foundation, The Helen Bader Foundation, The Harold Grinspoon Foundation,, Ben and Esther Rosenbloom Foundation, giving it the wherewithal to make a substantial impact. That’s important because JECEI’s goals are sizable: to increase the number of families who send their children to Jewish day school, to increase synagogue affiliation and to have more Jewish parents choosing Jewish preschools for their children.
Although the program began just a few months ago, Chabad representative Malkie Herson, the educational director of Zimmer Preschool said JECEI has had a profound influence on her approach to her role as a Chabad representative. Taking the time to consider the underlying needs of her community members, staff and students before developing a product, project or program is an outgrowth of the JECEI experience. The questions raised by JECEI, Herson has found, may be answered by examining the tenets of Chabad philosophy. “The whole process has allowed me to open to the treasure in my backyard,” said Herson.
Recently, when school parents requested a Friday night prayer service that catered to young children, Herson met with those parents to uncover the needs that motivated their request. The conclusion, that parents wanted to strengthen their children’s relationship with their rabbi, will lead to a very different program than Herson would have planned before.
In August, Deren and Herson attended a three-day retreat attended by JECEI directors, coaches and preschool heads from the thirteen selected schools. The diverse group was comprised of directors from JCCs and all types of Jewish schools. “We came from very different backgrounds, but we clicked,” said Herson. “We were connecting as equals, as Jews passionate about education.”
The recognition of preschool as a springboard for Jewish continuity is “long overdue,” said Deren. “The Lubavitcher Rebbe certainly made it front and center.”