It’s obvious that Michael Reisman likes being around kids when, guitar in hand, he entered a classroom at the Sharon & Stephen Seidman Early Childhood Center at the West Orange JCC, a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, on a recent Thursday afternoon.
The three-year-olds crowded around and shouted out their favorite songs for him to play and sing. As he started with a rock and roll version of the ABCs, then went on to an interactive song about ducks, it was clear that he was enjoying the reaction from the kids, who were dancing around the room while he played.
Preschoolers aren’t his only fans. “He’s definitely more involved in the classroom,” said class co-teacher, Danika Silencieux. “He comes in all the time.”
Reisman was hired as the preschool’s director last August, succeeding an interim team led by Grace Kaplan, a 30-plus-years veteran of the JCC’s early childhood department and formerly its assistant director. The center has 276 students enrolled; about 70 stay for the full care preschool option that runs through the afternoon.
Reisman said his new job is a “homecoming.” He grew up in Union and earned an undergraduate degree from Rutgers University, but he spent most of his professional career in secular preschools in Seattle, where he also earned a master’s degree from the University of Washington College of Education.
So intent was he on returning to New Jersey that he and his family — wife, Laura, and two-year-old son, Holden — moved in with his mother in Union while he searched for the right job. And so intent was he on finding a position in a Jewish school that he added his bar mitzva preparation at Temple Israel in Union to his resume.
“I figured the hallmark of a Jewish education is a bar mitzva, at least for the resume,” he joked, adding, “The truth is, my experience growing up in this area as a Jewish person was really significant.” His involvement with the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization in high school intensified his commitment to Jewish values.
He does not see much of a gap between the curricula of secular and Jewish preschools.
“I find the early childhood values for developing the classroom community and curriculum are so overlapping with what I believe are strong Jewish values,” he said, citing lessons on self-esteem and loving others found in the Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Sages) curriculum that was piloted at the JCC. “I’ve been doing this for years, just not tying it to texts like Pirkei Avot or the Torah,” he said.
He said he loves the idea of being at a JCC preschool. “I wanted to be part of a greater organization. Here, the school is part of a greater community and that offers perspective on a larger world.” He added, “The JCC is a place for Jewish families and doesn’t exist just for the sake of perpetuating its own philosophy.”
Reisman is implementing a new early-learning framework that views children as essential partners in education. “Children are not empty vessels whom we fill with knowledge and experience,” said Reisman. “That’s not how it works. Knowledge is built in collaboration with children. They are participants in the general learning of the classroom, and their knowledge needs to be made available to all children in the classroom and the teachers must make the learning visible.”
He is also tweaking the curriculum so that it emerges from student interest. So for example, the autumn curriculum doesn’t begin on a set date, but rather when the children themselves notice the leaves falling.
For Reisman, preschool education is all in the family. His wife teaches at Gymboree in Chatham, and his mother is a preschool teacher at Christ Church in Short Hills. “She calls herself the token Jew there,” he quipped, but added on a more serious note, “I’ve known this field as her son for as long as I can remember.”
He calls it a “profound career choice.”
“Somewhere along the journey, you realize how important brain development is between birth and the age of five. These are people who have made the choice to step into a career where you’re not going to get rich and there is little notoriety, but you get to play a role in developing skills in young learners and contribute to society.
“I couldn’t be more proud or humble to be among them.”