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A Community of Learning
At Congregation Beth El’s Early Childhood Center, education goes beyond phonics fundamentals and instills Jewish values in children from all walks of life.

by Liz Hunter

 When one thinks of the word “community” it conjures images of people sharing common attitudes and goals. Inherently, people seek out a like-minded community whether they share religious beliefs or education objectives—and sometimes it can fulfill both. More often than not, when they find the right fit, it begins to feel like home.

This sense of belonging and inclusivity is fostered from a young age at Congregation Beth El’s Early Childhood Center. As a part of a 100-year-old synagogue, the Early Childhood Center (ECC) not only fosters the youngest members of the Jewish faith, but also creates a welcoming environment for every child who enters, no matter their religion, race or family dynamic. It is here that children begin to understand the true meaning of community.

Principal Ayelet Mittelman says she was once without a Jewish community. “I grew up in a Conservative [Jewish] home and had turned away from religion,” she says. “When my family moved here, we toured Beth El and attended the Rosh Hashanah service. The sermon was so full of love and welcoming—it was not the fire and brimstone I grew up with—and I joined because of that experience.”

Congregation Beth El’s values of “love thy neighbor” are incorporated into the curriculum of the ECC, with inclusivity being at the center of it all. “It’s important to teach children at this young age that everyone is beautiful and special. If a child comes to school who is differently abled, we teach our students to embrace them as they would any other student and that we have so much to learn from each other.” Mittelman says. “You don’t need to be Jewish or a congregation member to understand this.”

Rabbi Nogah Marshall, educational director, says Jewish and everyday values are the same. “For instance, on Fridays many classes will bring in a mitzvah note. A mitzvah is a good deed. They are invited to discuss what mitzvah they performed that week,” Marshall says. “That is all about kindness and it’s embedded through everything we do.”

It’s concepts like this that separate early childhood education from the daycare standards of the past, says Marshall. “Early childhood education [is now] about preparing children to be kind and loving, but also introducing them to motor skills, academics and skills to help them develop socially and emotionally. We’re a school that provides love and care for families and a solid secular and Jewish education. When our students leave here for kindergarten, they are more than ready for first grade.”

Marshall says children as young as 18 months are like sponges and the curriculum is presented through music, games, songs, manipulatives, and enriching and stimulating activities for each age group. The ECC offers small class sizes, full- and half-day options, three outdoor playgrounds and two indoor play spaces, as well as experienced faculty, student care and a advocate on staff. Jewish holidays, values and Shabbat are important parts of the curriculum and woven into both daily and weekly activities.

Because the ECC is caring for children from such a young age, the staff is particularly aware of any possible delays in their development. “Some children are here from 6:45 a.m. to 6 p.m.—we spend a significant portion of their week with them, and if we notice any potential red flags, we have a student care advocate, Donna Snyder, M.Ed., who works in tandem with parents to help navigate the system in order to set their child up for success if and when those challenges are presented,” Mittelman says.

Many parents know how hard it is to be apart from their child and the ECC realizes the importance of keeping parents engaged in their child’s daily activities. The ECC uses an app, Remini, which is “like a private Facebook feed for your child,” says Mittelman. “Parents can follow their child’s day with photos, communicate with teachers and can also use it as a tool to engage with their children when they are picked up. This is a great way to reinforce the lessons of the day. We are also very active on social media and send weekly memos with information, family craft suggestions and great engagement opportunities.”

Communication has been critical in the wake of COVID. The school exceeded COVID protocols, doing everything possible to minimize the risk of exposure. “Teachers truly rose to the occasion,” Marshall says. Teachers hosted specials through Zoom, and even showed up in students’ driveways for birthday celebrations.

“We laud the children especially,” Mittelman adds. “We told them they were superheroes [for wearing masks] and never let it inhibit their fun or learning. … They adapted and understood how important it was and the good they were doing by wearing it,” she continues.

With a year of a “new normal” under their belt, the ECC is ready to do it again as the school year is about to begin. In fact, they report that enrollment actually increased since COVID. “It shows that people know we provide the best possible safe environment, and families can trust us and feel comfortable as they return to work,” Marshall says.

Congregation Beth El - Early Childhood Center
8000 Main St.
(856) 675-1166

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 5 (August 2021).
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