Following the closure of nursery schools at Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor, The Jewish Center in Princeton, and Har Sinai Temple in Pennington over the past couple of years, Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction can now claim to run the only remaining Jewish preschool in Mercer County.
Anne Berman-Waldorf, Beth Chaim’s director of lifelong education, pointed to the school’s Jewish character even though half its 110 students are not Jewish.
“What makes it a Jewish nursery school? The easy answer is that we do Shabbat and Jewish holidays, have a Hebrew program, the clergy are in and out [of the classrooms], and we consider the families in the preschool as part of our community,” Berman-Waldorf told NJJN.
But Berman-Waldorf also offered a more complex answer that has to do with values and the way the school views its students. “We teach that we are all God’s creatures, and all God’s creatures are welcome in our home. We do that by recognizing the diversity of our students.”
A strong anti-bullying message, for example, follows from the belief that all of God’s children should be treated with respect. Teachers reflect the prophetic vision when they tell the children how they can help correct problems in the world, and when they learn to value the earth God created when they stop to pick up litter during a nature walk. And, Berman-Waldorf added, “we are Jewish because we say ‘thank you’ all the time.”
The school, which has been in existence for more than 40 years, grew out of the JCC Ring Nursery, which started out at Beth Chaim and then went out on its own. In addition to its warm and caring environment, Berman-Waldorf said, two special features have contributed to the school’s success and stability: its flexibility and its in-house behaviorist who works with children with special needs.
Although the preschool cannot be called a day-care program, because it is closed on certain days, it has built in as much flexibility as possible to “make sure all Jewish families who want a Jewish early childhood program for their children feel comfortable and welcome in our school,” Berman-Waldorf said.
In synch with a changing world — where, she said, the 9-to-11-a.m., three-days-a-week model no longer works — the school is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. And because “there are lots of people whose work schedule is not as written in stone as it used to be,” the school offers bundled hours, Berman-Waldorf said. Families can purchase 10 additional hours at a discount rate to be used, for example, if a parent can’t leave work on time or needs to go into work early some days.
To enable the school to welcome a variety of children, the preschool began a partnership in January with The Success Center by GBCS in West Windsor, which provides a trained behavioral analyst to work with students. “This opens the door to special-needs children who weren’t able to access early childhood education,” Berman-Waldorf said. “Children come in different sizes, shapes, abilities, and temperaments. Our feeling is that every child deserves quality early childhood education.”
The analyst from The Success Center can shadow children who may need extra support, give teachers tips and techniques for working with special-needs children, and work with families to help them be “the best parents and best children they can be,” Berman-Waldorf said.
The school also sometimes partners with West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District’s special-needs programs, taking a child for half a day.
These children may have developmental or speech delays or just require more attention, guidance, or structured direction than others in a class of 10 to 12 students with two teachers. “This allows us to be more successful with these students and create a better environment for the whole class,” Berman-Waldorf said. “We see the potential in every child, and our goal is to help every family and child realize that potential.”
As to why non-Jewish families are drawn to a school that is upfront about its Jewish character — saying the Motzi before snacks, learning about Jewish holidays, hearing stories from the Torah, seeing Hebrew all over the building, and learning Hebrew songs — Berman-Waldorf said, “They like the sense of inclusion and the values. We live in a diverse, multicultural world, and kids need to feel comfortable in and out of different communities.”
Beth Chaim’s Rabbi Eric Wisnia added that many of the non-Jewish parents also like the fact that Jews are a minority in the general American population. “Their children won’t feel the urge to assimilate, but will learn that it is all right to be part of a small group and be different,” he said.
In the wake of the other Jewish preschools closing, this year Beth Chaim is offering a 5 percent discount to families who are members of other congregations (Beth Chaim members get a 10 percent discount). “This is a recognition that they are part of our community and looking to create a Jewish life for their families,” she said, adding that the synagogue’s rabbis will be reaching out to rabbis of other congregations. “We need a strong Jewish community, that Jews come together not only in their own synagogues, but can cross over and support each other.”