Josh is on the waiting list to get into Chabad of S. Mateo’s brand new Chai Jewish Preschool of Excellence, but he doesn’t know it. Josh is six months old. Although the school only had its first open house on August 7, all twelve places have filled – except for one Tuesday/Thursday spot. Just to be sure her son would have a place in two years, Josh’s mom penciled her son in and so did the mom of another infant.
Chai Preschool’s director, Chabad’s representative in S. Mateo, Esty Marcus attributed the school’s immediate popularity to Chabad’s reputation for creative and professional programs. “There was a need for a preschool that offered a Jewish curriculum integrated with regular preschool activities,” said Marcus, “a place where kids feel happy … discover Judaism and live it.”
Since their arrival in S. Mateo four years ago, Rabbi Yossi and Esty Marcus have established their standing as innovators with events like “Spa for the Soul” day and a shtetl-themed Purim celebration where knishes and old time shtetl dress up were part of the fun. Chai Preschool is structured to live up to that standard. Marcus, who holds a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of New England, blended choice elements from the pedagogic philosophies of Reggio Emilia and Montessori along with traditional teaching methods to shape her program.
New approaches, fashionable for their sensitivity to the way children learn best, fit in well with Jewish tradition, said Rabbi Marcus. “General society arrived at the conclusion that the formal education of young children is a serious matter deserving of serious attention within the past few generations, but in Judaism this is nothing new. We begin creating an environment to educate children from the womb, and our preschool is an extension of this commitment to excellence.”
Excellence was on Esty Marcus’s mind well before the twelve sneakers and sandals shod tots toddled into the Chai Preschool sunny room this September. Over the summer, local artist Netta Levy painted colorful murals on the walls. On one end, a sweet-faced giraffe towers over flowers. Nearby a tree blooms with mitzvah leaves. Soon Levy will take brush in hand again to add a clown juggling letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Mingling with the smell of fresh paint is the honeyed scent of hardwood coming from the Amish-crafted blond wood classroom furniture. “We chose top of the line furniture because we wanted our classroom to be a place that is aesthetically pleasing, that invites children to explore,” said Marcus.
Marcus admits to being rather picky when it came to selecting manipulative toys for Chai Preschool. She taught preschool for six years at Chabad of Port Washington, NY, and at another school run by Chabad of Queens. “I know which toys kids love and actually play with.”
When the children gather for morning circle time, Chai Preschool teachers Melanie Carr and Brachie Barnett come prepared with a Mary-Poppins-worthy satchel of items. A sun puppet for the wake up prayer Modeh Ani. Jingle bells to place in the children’s right hands for the Shema prayer. Silky scarves to wave in all directions during the song that proclaims G-d is “truly everywhere: up, down, right, left and all around.” The approach is overtly Jewish and immensely joyful.
“The parents are thrilled with the school,” said Marcus. One mother, who expected her son to run to her at pick-up time, was surprised to find her son busy playing, not even noticing her arrival. Another mother: “could not believe it when she saw her son sit on the teacher’s lap to listen to a story. He had never been that comfortable in his other school.”
Even Marcus’s two children are reluctant to leave the classroom after school ends. With this sort of success right from the start, baby Josh’s mom’s move to waitlist her son may prove prescient.