A June 5 reunion of former students and parents of the Joan Levin Center for Early Childhood Education at The Jewish Center in Princeton promises to be bittersweet, because it will also mark the school’s closing after 34 years.
The preschool, which had 120 students at its height and a current enrollment of 17, is closing, wrote Ginger Schnitzer, the Jewish Center’s vice president of education, in an e-mail, “due to shifting needs of our community.”
Linda Meisel, one of the preschool’s founding parents and executive director of Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County, said, “For me and my family, the nursery school was an amazing place to have my young children experience not only a fine Jewish education but also to build a hevruta of kids and families. Some of my closest friends are still those families that I met in the nursery school.”
In 1982, the parents themselves, with limited funds, “created a nursery room” in the basement of the Princeton synagogue “with hand-me-down toys and furniture and the cheapest…red, indoor-outdoor carpeting we could buy,” wrote founding parent Harriet Kass in an e-mail to NJ Jewish News. They also built a playground from second-hand equipment. “You have to imagine a pediatrician, several professors, a lawyer, and an Israeli army general pounding nails and building a swing set, sandbox, etc. A sight to behold. Yet it worked,” Kass wrote.
Although the founders had some difficulty convincing the Jewish Center’s board that the school would not be a financial drain, Kass wrote, “the nursery school soon ended up more than paying for itself and in fact providing students who would later attend the religious school as well.”
As the Jewish Center’s preschool enrollment decreased over the last few years, with the decision to close the preschool announced in The Jewish Center’s January 2016 newsletter, the synagogue and religious school started offering new programs to attract young families and educate their children.
Shabbat Katan, a Shabbat service run by Rabbi Julie Roth and Sarah Korn, usually draws about 30 families. In Gan Katan, a Sunday morning program begun three years ago for kids four to five years old, students experience Judaism through art, stories, music, and games. Offered once a month this year, next year it will be weekly. A monthly Sunday morning Ganon class opened this year for three- and four-year-olds, and young-family programs are being held on Jewish holidays. Yad b’Yad, a longtime Mommy and Me program, has been reinvigorated. Ninety-two young families are on the e-mail list for these programs.
“The closing of the nursery school may have been the catalyst” for these new programs, Schnitzer said, “but maybe in the end we are serving the community better. We are giving them what they need.”
Ellen Pristach, a Jewish Center preschool teacher since 1993, told NJJN that students left the preschool with “such an enriched beginning…of Yiddishkeit” that when the students moved to secular elementary schools, they expressed surprise that “they don’t say the brachas [blessings].” She added, “There was almost a sense of mishpacha, of family — that was our connection to each other.”
Levin, who ran the preschool from its inception (under religious school principal Shoshana Silberman), retired as director in 2005. “It was always a very happy place — the one place where people would come and all their worries would go out the window.”
The only other Jewish preschool in Mercer County, at Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction, is “going strong,” according to Robin Resnick, the synagogue’s assistant director for early childhood education. Its program has 82 students, 65 or 70 percent of whom are Jewish, and it offers parents a variety of flexible attendance options, including an extended-day option.