Parents of children enrolled at the Early Learning Center of Temple Shalom in Aberdeen describe it as a place where youngsters learn and thrive in a warm, loving environment. However, the school has been operating with an increasingly large deficit that, said congregation leaders, is draining the temple’s financial resources. As a result, despite pleas from parents that the center remain in operation, the synagogue board voted to close the 25-year-old school in June.
The decision has parents fuming, claiming they were “blindsided” by the move. They are engaged in last-ditch efforts to save the Learning Center, and have threatened not to renew their memberships at the Reform temple and join synagogues where their children will be able to attend preschool next year.
“We are just devastated,” said Jackie Kleyman of Old Bridge. “We had no idea. We believe the Early Learning Center is such an asset to the community. We as young Jewish parents want to be part of something, and I feel like the Learning Center is that way in. That they are closing its doors…is just heartbreaking.”
Kleyman planned to enroll her two preschool-age daughters in the Temple Shalom religious school when they came of age, but now she is looking into other area synagogue preschools for next year and will probably send her kids to religious school at whatever temple she finds.
“I feel like the school is a gateway for families to get them involved in temple events and eventually religious school,” said Kleyman. She said she understood the “enrollment wasn’t there,” but she didn’t believe the temple was doing enough to attract new families. Saying that if more people knew about the “talent” of center director Elyse Everett and her staff, “there would be a waiting list.”
“I’m a teacher myself,” Kleyman added. “I know what I was looking for in a school, and they have it all.”
Though they tried to keep the school open, Rabbi Laurence Malinger said its financial straits forced the decision; it had run up a deficit of more than $50,000 in the last year and a half, “and we cannot sustain that kind of loss.”
He said people who claim the synagogue made no attempt to keep the school open “are not aware that we did everything possible.”
“We did everything in our power to make sure this did not happen,” said Malinger. “I gave part of my salary to help paint the school and the awning, and offset some other expenses. The congregation made cuts elsewhere to help the school.”
Malinger said only two parents signed their children up when the school held early registration on March 1, and the prospects for attracting more students were dim, because of the state’s recently expanded preschool program.
“We are now competing with our local schools,” said the rabbi. “To keep the school open would have required another $35,000 commitment from us,” as well as a tuition hike.
“What parent is going to pay $5,000 a year?”
Congregation president Howard Scheines said parents who are temple members have had access to financial reports and should not have been surprised by the board’s move. “It’s not true they weren’t aware,” he said. “We’ve been very upfront and transparent with the school this year.”
Scheines claimed that several months ago, when the synagogue held a fund-raising concert for the preschool, “not one parent showed up.”
Parents had noticed that enrollment has been dropping for the last several years, but they said that hiring additional teachers and support staff last summer and a school makeover tripled enrollment in September — to 11 children, from a congregation with almost 300 member families.
Still, the parents hold out hope for a reprieve.
Jeffrey Simon of Hazlet, a lifelong congregant who has two daughters enrolled in the school, said parents have banded together to come up with a plan to attract new families and raise money to save the school. Some are volunteering their technology skills, helping with marketing and recruitment, and soliciting businesses to donate funds. Another parent, Jessica Siegel Sammut of Holmdel, started a fund-raising page on gofundme.com, which, as of April 12, had raised $10,351.
“I feel like the board kept this whole thing a secret because they didn’t want pushback,” said Simon, who drafted a letter to the board on behalf of all the families of the preschool youngsters. Addressing a meeting of the board on April 10, the parents made their case and asked the board to rescind the closure and defer their decision for a year.
“The school is a way to bring in new families,” said Simon. “How do they expect to keep the doors open if they don’t bring in new families? They’ve had declining membership for years, and they’re killing one of the only programs to bring in young families.”
Simon said his preschool daughters were “doing fabulously at the school and learning Jewish values,” but, he added, “If my girls have to go elsewhere, we’re leaving the temple.”
His father, Don, a congregant for almost 45 years, said Jeffrey and his four sisters all “benefitted tremendously” from the education they received at the temple.
The closing, he said, “is short-sighted and ignorant. With all the assimilation, it seems to be a mistake not just for the temple, but for the Jewish people. This school, with that amazing staff, should be a winner. All the other Jewish preschools in the area seem to be thriving. How come this one isn’t?”
The elder Simon vowed that if his son is forced to leave the temple, he “absolutely” would follow him to his new congregation.
Jeffrey Simon said he was disappointed that each parent was given only a couple of minutes to speak at the meeting with the board, “It left a bad taste in my mouth, and I felt pretty much defeated,” he said. “They were just going through the motions and never intended to change their minds.”
However, Simon acknowledged that the board’s education chair, Debbie Worthington, seemed passionate about Jewish education even as she defended the board’s position. Worthington deferred comment to Scheines when contacted by NJJN, but Simon reached out to her via email.
That Worthington agreed to meet with him, Simon said, gives him a glimmer of hope.