Retiring after 20 years — 16 as director — at the nursery school of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, Martha Mack recalled that she actually started there “by accident.”
Her son, Joey, was in the twos class, “when the then-director said the music specialist just quit, and we need someone while we look for another,” and she was asked to temporarily fill the vacant post.
She was highly qualified; she has a degree in music education from Alfred University and did post-graduate work at Northwestern University. After four years of “filling in,” she was offered the directorship.
At the time, the school had a smaller student body and ran from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; during her tenure, it became a full-day program and instituted an accredited kindergarten.
“We rose with the times,” Mack, a resident of Edison, told NJJN. “With more women working, people need a full day for their kids.”
The school is now open from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Two years ago the full-day kindergarten was begun, operating as a “wrap-around program.” (Metuchen and Edison do not have full-day kindergarten in their public schools.)
Arguably the biggest obstacle the school has faced since instituting the kindergarten is transporting students from half-day programs in public schools to the synagogue for the remainder of the day, said Mack. The numbers have been too small to interest a bus company, so the school has arranged for carpooling.
Because of space considerations, the school is limited to 42-45 students; 40 children are currently enrolled, and there are eight teachers and assistant teachers.
Mack, whose last day at the school was June 7, is succeeded by Marilyn Beutel, a former Hebrew school teacher who was director of a private preschool in Marlboro; she is also a b’nei mitzvah tutor at Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro.
Marian Szteinbaum, who has been a teacher at Neve Shalom for almost 16 years, said that Mack “has a heart of gold” and has “always understood my concerns.”
“When I had my own personal health issues, she was so understanding. She gave her all to the parents, to the students, and to the teachers. Her compassion is limitless.”
Szteinbaum’s son, Eitan, was a student back in 2004-05 so, she said, she has seen firsthand as both a teacher and mother how Mack listened to parents, was flexible and easy to talk to, and always provided a safe, secure environment for the children.
“I have always been able to speak with her about any professional concerns and know that she would always listen and share her wisdom,” said Szteinbaum.
For the entire 20 years Mack has been there, the school has been certified by the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children, whose standards Mack described as “a cut above what the State of New Jersey requires.”
The school does not have an infant care program, but it runs “Mommy and Me” — the name, she said, a “throwback” to an earlier time; now nannies and dads as well as moms participate.
The school’s student body is about 75 percent Jewish, but, Mack noted, the non-Jewish parents “just like the school [and] are OK that we live the Jewish calendar. We celebrate Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, and we live a Jewish value system of kindness to others and other things that embody Jewish philosophy.
“We are very proud of the fact that we have kids who aren’t Jewish, but we are such a good school parents want to send their children here.”
Under her guidance, Mack said, the school has taught a full spectrum of secular subjects, including math, science, reading, and social science, and has operated under the theory that “children learn intuitively through play.”
That involves teachers preparing lesson plans based on the seasons, holidays, or something else of interest to the children such as a favorite book or story revolving around everything from cooking to writing.
“We guide them so their play is actually goal-oriented, and when they go to public school, they are very well-prepared,” said Mack. “We teach how to be kind and how to share. All the things you would want — not just academics.”
Mack also instituted “My Jewish Journey,” a monthly Sunday morning program for nursery school-age children and their families, who don’t have to be affiliated with the synagogue.
While the program has brought some families into the congregation and school, Mack said, “our real hope is that these families will raise their children Jewishly.”
The school also offers tot Shabbats throughout the year as well as a young children’s service the first day of Rosh HaShanah and on Yom Kippur that are big draws for young families.
In addition to Joey, Mack and her husband, Ken, have a daughter, Hayley. Mack said she hasn’t thought about her next career move, adding, “I just want to take the summer off and just breathe.”