Leah Hoffman slips into a show-and-tell circle in a classroom for three- and four-year-olds at the YM-YWHA of Union County preschool, a beneficiary agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. She looks as excited as the kids seem when it’s her turn to hold the doll and the shiny red action figure being passed around.
In her first year as the director of the preschool, she said, the transition has been seamless.
“I’ve gotten close to a lot of people here, both parents and children,” she said. “I walk down the hall here, and I hear ‘Miss Leah!’ or ‘Morah Leah!’”
She breaks into an easy smile as she thinks about the kids calling out her name. Later, she stops to speak with one of the parents, who is visibly pregnant.
“She was a first-time parent when I arrived. I had to give her one of my poems. Soon she’ll be a second-time parent with us,” Hoffman said.
The poem she was referring to — which she found much earlier in her career — offers comfort to parents who are anxious about leaving their children for the first time. “Often the kids are having no trouble at all, but I find the mothers, and sometimes the fathers, a little weepy in the hallway,” said Hoffman. “They need something to help them realize it’s okay.”
A veteran preschool director, Hoffman, who has been commuting to Union from Staten Island since she began last August, spent her early years and much of her professional life in Brooklyn.
Before coming to the JCC, she was for 12 years a teacher of nursery school through grade two, and then director of early childhood at ZDR Academy, formerly known as the Yeshiva of Manhattan Beach.
Prior to that, she spent 12 years at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School in Staten Island as a preschool and first-grade teacher.
When ZDR Academy closed its doors, she said, she was thrilled to come to the Union Y — in part because that brings her much closer to her daughter, son-in-law, and their four children, who live in nearby Elizabeth. (Her children were educated at the Jewish Educational Center, and her son-in-law, Josh Wise, is assistant principal at JEC’s Rav Teitz Mesivta Academy).
Hoffman succeeded Sandi Newman, who, as a mother of four, decided to cut back on her responsibilities at work. She is now associate director for early childhood.
Although being in a more diverse environment is new to her, Hoffman embraces the challenge. “Surprisingly, I’ve never felt out of my element,” she said. “I get to deal with all kinds of people and it’s great. I learn about their cultures and they learn about mine.”
The Union Y accepts children from all backgrounds, but one class is set aside as a religious environment in which prayer and Torah are woven into the curriculum.
Throughout the rest of the preschool, Jewish culture and holidays are part of the fabric of the year, but there is no religious instruction per se.
On the Friday before Yom Ha’atzmaut, the kids were busy with projects.
“Right now we’re very much into celebrating Israel’s birthday,” Hoffman said. “We’re making hats and we’re making flags. It’s all about the culture. The parents love it.” (Or at least, she said, they are not complaining.)
Hoffman is a big believer in child-directed learning. It’s a shift she’s embraced over the course of her 25-plus years in early childhood education.
“In the beginning, the field was much more teacher-focused. You were the ‘sage on the stage.’ Now, you’re the ‘guide on the side.’” The difference, from her perspective, is in allowing children to express themselves. “Back then, we didn’t give them clay and see what they would do with it; we told them, ‘Now make a dreidl like this.’ Now, we get to know the children and see where their interests lie, and then form a curriculum,” she said.
Even as a veteran educator, she is eager to learn from colleagues — like the longtime Israeli teacher in the Jewish curriculum classroom, who runs a successful program.
And for parents who expect nothing but perfection from their kids, she’s all about learning as a process. “I don’t care what it looks like when it goes home. I like when children do their own projects, not when teachers tell them what to do and how to do it.”
It’s obvious watching her that she’s there because she loves her work. As she puts it, “It’s the magic of children, especially at this age.”