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Montessori educators gather for NJ confab
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Montessori educators gather for NJ confab

‘Child-centered’ system is seen to be growing in Jewish settings

At the Jewish Montessori Society conference, Netivot head primary teacher Adi Yarmush demonstrates a Hebrew language lesson.
At the Jewish Montessori Society conference, Netivot head primary teacher Adi Yarmush demonstrates a Hebrew language lesson.

Teachers and administrators from 14 Jewish Montessori schools in the United States and Canada came to the movement’s “flagship” school in East Brunswick for a conference reflecting the growth of what advocates call a “child-centered” approach to education.

The Dec. 14 event at Yeshivat Netivot Montessori was billed as a northeast regional conference of the Jewish Montessori Society but it drew 42 educators from as far away as Toronto, Los Angeles, and Maryland, representing Jewish schools from fervently Orthodox to liberal.

“That is one of the things about Montessori,” said society executive director Ami Petter-Lipstein. “The methodology can work with any movement.”

She said Netivot was chosen because it “is the flagship school in North America of the Jewish Montessori movement. It has produced a vast quantity of materials used by people all over the world.” 

Petter-Lipstein is a Highland Park resident whose own children attend Netivot. She said the movement is rapidly growing.

“There’s a Jewish Montessori in Amsterdam, two in London, two in Mexico City; there’s even a Chabad-run Montessori through sixth grade in Beijing,” said Petter-Lipstein. “We need more Montessori-trained teachers; that’s our biggest hurdle. We need our day schools to run a Montessori second track and more freestanding day schools.” 

She said a Jewish Montessori in Cologne, Germany, had contacted her, asking if there was a recording of the conference. Montessori ganim, or preschools, in Israel employ the Montessori method, which focuses on total development of the child.

The Montessori approach, developed by Italian physician Maria Montessori in 1907, emphasizes independence and freedom of choice, allowing students to work at their own pace in many subject areas. It allows for many group projects and does not rely on standardized tests. 

“Montessori is not just good; it is phenomenal,” said Flory Heller, director of the Chabad Early Learning Center in Rockaway, which uses Montessori techniques and tools. “It takes into account the needs of all children and touches them and the way they work in an organized, meaningful way. It lets the teacher look at the total child, spiritually, emotionally. These children see themselves as part of a caring community that extends to the family.”

Petter-Lipstein said Netivot is the only Montessori school to go through eighth grade with a fully Orthodox curriculum. The 15-year-old school, which had been gradually adding grades since its inception, graduated its first eighth-grade class in 2013 and now has 125 students, including a growing number from Linden, Elizabeth, and Long Branch. Several students travel from as far away as Long Island.

The conference “was terrific and a long time coming,” said Netivot head of school Rivky Ross. “For a long time people in the Jewish Montessori field have needed an opportunity to sit and exchange ideas, learn from one another, and experience camaraderie to organize and create a network. We now plan to make this an annual event and expand it beyond the Northeast.”

Those attending the conference participated in sessions on how to teach Hebrew language and on infusing basic lessons with Jewish meaning.

Speakers included Jonah Halper, a fund-raising and marketing professional who specializes in new donor acquisitions. Fund-raisers should begin with the attitude that “everybody loves Jewish Montessori. They just don’t know it yet,” he said.

“If you don’t have a mission, marketing, and manpower in place, you won’t get the money,” said Halper.

Sharona Schwartz, of Shalom Yeladim Early Childhood Center in Manhattan, said Montessori allows a child’s curiosity to guide his or her learning. “The child is free to have an experience and do what he or she wants without being told,” she said. 

“A curious child gets to explore their curiosity. It’s good for the child to have this freedom to choose and to process his or her thoughts and feelings and learn from their mistakes.”

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