Jewish preschool provides children, as well as their families, the opportunity to explore their Jewish culture and offers the seeds for establishing Jewish identity which is defined differently for each of us. While most programs have highly articulated Jewish educational goals, their more general goals appear to focus on integrating Jewish values and Jewish culture into the preschool environment and making children proud of being Jewish. The growth of the Jewish community in Orange County mirrors the growth of its preschools.
Three new programs in the Orange County Jewish community are Olam Montessori at Beth Jacob in Irvine and the preschool programs at Chabad in Rancho Santa Margarita and Temple Judea in Laguna Hills.
Olam Jewish Montessori of Beth Jacob was founded in 2011 on the Beth Jacob of Irvine campus in Irvine, California, and is a private school for children ages 2 to 6 years old. The preschool was started by a group of Beth Jacob parents who were looking to start a preschool for the growing membership of the shul. “We wanted a different kind of early childhood experience than what already exists in the community,” said Robyn Farber, director of the program. “Most of the other Jewish preschool programs had waiting lists, and our members with young children could not be served.” One of the parents had a child’s time split between a Montessori school and a local Jewish preschool, and thought that it would be great if Congregation Beth Jacob could combine the best of both and offer something completely new.
“We started doing research,” said Farber, “and found that there were other Jewish Montessori schools all over the world.” Three years ago, Beth Jacob invited a trainer from the Center for Jewish Montessori, and the journey began. Three of the parents were so excited by this that they went back to school and to train as Jewish Montessori teachers. The teachers are also supported by volunteers of the Beth Jacob community who are involved in designing and building the facility, regulatory compliance and other administrative activities, and raising funds.
“We believe that each and every child is special and unique, and deserves the opportunity of fulfilling his/her potential to the fullest,” added Farber. She pointed out that the school will strive to “infuse each child with a passion for learning, a sense of curiosity and a feeling of menschlikite.” Beth Jacob seeks to instill in the children a lifelong love of learning, a sense of who they are and to create an environment based on the teachings of the Torah and mitzvot in a safe, joyous and positive Jewish social environment.
All teachers trained at the Montessori Teacher Academy in Dana Point and at the Center for Jewish Montessori based in New Jersey. The teachers work as a team with Isabelle Harris, a California state qualified Child Care Center Director and Rabbi Yisroel Ciner in developing the program and implementing the Judaic curriculum. Other teachers are Sonya Neutel and Symone Sass. An open house at Beth Jacob will be held on September 18 and include tours of the newly expanded campus, including the preschool, for the general community.
The new preschool starting at Chabad of Rancho Santa Margarita is headed by Rochel Kantor and will open its doors for the upcoming school year, September 2011, for children ages 2 to 3 years old. “Rancho Santa Margarita prides itself on being a family community,” said Kantor.” The local library is the busiest of all surrounding towns with children’s activities and programming. Yet there is nothing Jewish in the immediate area for young children.”
Kantor often met mothers with preschool aged children and saw that there was a real desire and need for a place for young children to connect Jewishly. “We plan to be that place — a place that will combine excellent education and opportunity for their children together with real caring, nurture, love and a warm Jewish environment.” Kantor continued, “There is nothing more potent for a child’s sense of identity, community and culture than a fun, warm, stimulating Jewish experience early on.”
The pre-school will primarily be serving the Saddleback Valley and Canyon communities, including Rancho Santa Margarita, Trabuco Canyon, Ladera Ranch, Mission Viejo and Foothill Ranch.
The small class sizes will provide children with a home-like atmosphere where each preschooler can explore, discover and learn at his/her own pace. “Free and guided play will create multiple opportunities for critical thinking, problem solving, self discovery and interacting with peers,” said Kantor. The outdoor garden space will allow children to develop their gross motor skills as well as experiment with water, sand and paint and get in touch with nature.
Of course included in the curriculum will be art projects, songs, storytelling, Jewish holiday crafts and challah baking – engaging all five senses, and encouraging literacy and learning. “Our unique program will integrate art, math, and science skills with Jewish themes,” said Kantor. “Working with young children is a real joy. From a child we can learn how every moment in life is precious and impactful.” With four children of her own, and fifteen years of teaching experience, she looks forward this new and exciting opportunity. “As we develop our program,” said Kantor, “we would like to expand into a larger facility and accept more children, while retaining the warm, individualized atmosphere.” Their next open House will take place Sunday, August 7, at 11:30 a.m.
Temple Judea, a synagogue largely known for serving the retiree community, began a religious school last year and is expanding to include kindergarten students as well. Temple Judea’s Hebrew School serves students and their families from kindergarten age through eighth grade including Bar and Bat Mitzvah training and family holiday and Shabbat programming. The impetus for the school came as a result of the generosity of Steven and Teri Marsh and the entire Marsh family who endowed the Arthur Marsh Family Education Fund. As a Conservative shul, serving all the communities of South Orange County, Temple Judea is able to serve several dozen students, and provide individualized attention. Programs cover major and minor holidays and include such subjects as: Exploring Forgiveness, Learning to blow Shofar, Sukkah under the Stars, Jewish Ecology – Being Green Our Way, Mezuzah My Style and How to Celebrate as Jews. Educator Barbara Fleischer leads an enthusiastic teaching staff and works with Rabbi Dennis Linson, Cantor Joseph Chazan and Cantorial Soloist Sandy Bernstein, who also assist in Judaic teaching and liturgy and tefilah. Funds have already been raised for a new Judaic-themed playground and climbing wall soon to be installed.
Jewish preschools serve not only to welcome young children into the Jewish community, but a family’s involvement in preschools has an even greater significance. It makes Judaism accessible – especially for people lacking Jewish backgrounds and for those who are peripherally affiliated with organized Jewish life. While many families begin as “tourists” at these schools, often, their participation encourages them to become permanent residents in the Jewish world at large.