The ABC’s of Being Jewish

by Jessica Hanewinckel July 29, 2010


There was a time when preschool meant nothing more than glorified daycare. Though playtime, naptime and snacktime are still part of most preschoolers’ days, the field of early childhood education has come a long way, and so have preschools. Luckily for San Diego’s Jewish community, a number of high-quality preschools operate across the county right in our very own synagogues, preparing students not only for their K-12 years, but also to become loving, kind, active members of the Jewish community. Though they all have their own educational philosophies and teaching techniques, each San Diego Jewish preschool boasts a warm, loving community and the benefit of having clergy members and a synagogue literally on its doorstep. And in the case of each preschool, when June arrives, summer camp in the same familiar surroundings is always available, too. At San Diego’s Jewish preschools, fun (and learning) never stop.

Ganon Gil Preschool

Temple Adat Shalom

Located in the heart of Poway, which is well known for its excellent school district, Ganon Gil Preschool at Temple Adat Shalom is where many local families bring their young children to prepare them for the challenging and rewarding school years ahead. As the smallest of the local Jewish synagogue preschools (they’ve kept enrollment to about 35 2-6-year-olds since they opened 25 years ago), Ganon Gil makes it possible for its four teachers to work more closely with their students.

“The small groups really provide the opportunity to have individual attention,” says Marilyn Milne, early childhood education director at Adat Shalom for the past three years and a 20-year veteran in the field. “We’re able to have that sort of closeness because we’re small. The teachers know all of the families; the families know each other.”

Ganon Gil also takes advantage of its proximity to the North County Inland Older Adult Center, which is located on the synagogue’s campus. Says Milne, the children enjoy activities with the seniors, especially through the preschool’s intergenerational music specialist. They also benefit from lots of Jewish learning.

“There is certainly a strong Judaic component,” Milne says. “Rabbi David [Castiglione] and Cantor Lori [Wilinsky Frank] are so skilled at being able to interact with preschoolers, and they’re very involved. We see them throughout the course of the week and always have Shabbat with them.”

And when the challah isn’t being cut, the children enjoy a very “developmentally appropriate, but eclectic” curriculum; a garden where the kids grow their own vegetables; a pet guinea pig named Max and a Shabbat teddy bear who go home with students; and a Judaic educator onsite.

“There is lots of hands-on learning,” says Milne, who adds that most of the school’s pre-K students are reading by the end of the school year. “We try to meet the needs of the whole child, socially, emotionally and physically…we’re also familiar with academics and the standards that are expected of children in kindergarten so that they’re well prepared and able to go on and be successful. It’s kind of a balancing act.”

Beth Montessori Preschool

Congregation Beth El

It’s obvious which educational philosophy Beth Montessori Preschool follows with its approximately 100 preschoolers. As the only fully Montessori Jewish preschool in San Diego, Beth Montessori gives as much importance to its teaching style as it does its emphasis on Jewish education. And the school, which has been open five years, is in the process as becoming recognized by the American Montessori Institute. Since its inception, the school has employed all AMI-trained teachers and remained consistently committed to the Montessori philosophy as Italian physician and educator Marie Montessori developed it in 1907.

Beth Montessori’s executive director and founder Cecilia Michan explains that the Montessori technique is based on the fact that children between birth and 6 years have an immense capacity to learn. The method takes advantage of this sensitive period of development and exposes kids to as many learning opportunities as possible.

“We foster a lot of independence and teach children to do things on their own,” Michan says. “It’s a much richer learning experience when they discover something on their own than it is for it to simply be taught verbatim.”

An especially unique aspect of Montessori classrooms is mixed-age groupings of 3-6-year-olds.

“It really creates a beautiful social dynamic and is a bit more representative of the world, where not everyone is the same age or doing the same thing as everyone else,” Michan says. “It helps them to understand differences, consciousness, tolerance and a sense of community when they learn to work together and help each other.”

Beth Montessori, which serves 18-month-olds through kindergarten, is also bilingual. In each class, one guide speaks only English and the other speaks only Spanish, taking advantage of the early window of language acquisition when children can easily learn any language(s) they’re taught.

In addition to its heavy emphasis on Montessori teaching, the preschool spends as much time teaching Jewish values.

“The Jewish curriculum is woven very naturally into the classroom,” Michan says, “and since we focus mostly on the cultural and traditional aspects of Judaism, this exposure is a natural part of the children’s everyday lives.”

The Early Childhood Center

Temple Solel

There are lots of reasons for the great reputation of Temple Solel’s Early Childhood Center in Cardiff by the Sea. It’s the kind of place parents go not just for the loving environment, but for the myriad enrichment programs, experiences and Judaic learning opportunities they know their kids will have there. With 25 teachers, 11 classrooms and three playgrounds, this is no tiny preschool. But despite the size, it maintains that same spirit of close-knit Jewish warmth and welcoming.

“From the children and the teachers, to the parents and the temple community, to the rabbis and the temple staff, everyone is part of the [preschool] community and is supported here,” says Cathy Goldberg, the Center’s director who comes with 30 years of experience in the field. As a 14-year Temple Solel member herself, Goldberg understands the temple community’s loving, caring attitude toward the preschool.

“It’s really nice to have the [temple’s] support for the preschool and to see the importance of helping young Jewish families, because this is their entrance into the community,” Goldberg says, “this is how they’re getting connected and how they’re forming, so to be able to help them start their Jewish education is really nice.”

The school, which welcomes children under 2 for parent participation classes and children 2-5 for preschool, is play-based, though there’s no shortage of learning. Afternoon enrichment programs run the gamut and could include anything from ballet to hip hop and woodworking to cooking to clay.

And when it comes to their Jewish education, the children are exposed to just as much.

“We really strive to provide a Jewish environment where the kids come and learn and explore and just feel at home,” Goldberg says. “They’re exposed to the letters and numbers and shapes, so they’re getting that cognitive information, but in a playbase…It’s just so important for me for kids, whether they’re 2 or 4, to be exposed to all the knowledge and to learn about the stories in the Torah and to be able to say, ‘I can be helpful or I can be a leader like Moses.’ They’re connecting these stories to their lives, they’re doing mitzvahs, they’re learning Jewish stories and Jewish songs and bringing it all home to their parents, and it connects it all.”

Chabad Hebrew Academy Preschool Village

Chabad of Scripps Ranch

For parents who plan on sending their kids to Jewish day school following preschool, Chabad Hebrew Academy’s Preschool Village makes a great choice. The preschool accepts children as young as infants and as old as age 5, when they can transition easily to the Academy’s elementary classes nearby. And, according to Preschool Director Adriana DiCarlo, children and their families don’t need to be Chabad, or even religious, to enroll. In fact, most of the school’s students are not.

The Academy’s Preschool Village is welcoming to even the youngest children, and its classrooms — especially those for the older children — are set up in a neat, orderly way, reflective of the school’s light Montessori teaching methods.

DiCarlo, who was a Montessori teacher for about 14 years before accepting the position at the Preschool Village six years ago, says the school is “light” Montessori because it does not implement the educational philosophy as strictly as a full Montessori school would, especially for its younger children, whose classes are more developmental and play-based.

“Although the academic foundation of our preschool is based on Montessori education, we also believe there are a lot of benefits from the traditional way of teaching,” she says. “They still have the dress-up and Legos and all those pieces of equipment that are beneficial to their development. We also provide a strong Judaic education, so we bring the best of those three worlds into our preschool, and it flourishes that way.”

According to DiCarlo, employing the Montessori method means the needs of children of the same age are met regardless of their stage of development, and they’re given the tools so that each individual child can flourish.

“The children love being pushed to learn these things,” she says. “It just comes naturally to them, and we’re not a school that pushes children to read or do their math. They are being children, they are learning, they are playing, they are loving to learn and they’re in a very nice and loving environment. Chabad is well known as being a very loving and welcoming environment, and the children are welcomed with open arms.”

The Price Family Preschool

Temple Emanu-El

For many parents, sending their young children to Jewish preschool isn’t simply an introduction to Jewish life for their child — it’s the parents’ reintroduction to it after years away, or it’s one parent’s first real foray into Judaism in interfaith families. At Temple Emanu-El’s Price Family Preschool, many families fall into both these categories. Established 20 years ago, the preschool makes a strong effort to welcome new families into the temple community, says Preschool Co-director Judy Medoff.

“Our synagogue really appreciates us,” says Medoff, who originally set up the preschool as a volunteer at its inception, “and they’re very aware of how many families over the years have stayed because of the strong connection to the preschool.”

The preschool, which bases its curriculum on intellectual, physical, social and emotional development of its children, also heavily emphasizes Jewish heritage and always includes family in that education. Each Friday, every child in the school from ages 1-5 unites for a “Shabbat Sing.” Additionally, the preschoolers prepare for five preschool Shabbats each year in the temple’s sanctuary, which parents and family watch. During Passover, families dress up to act out the story of Passover for the kids, and one of the preschool’s babies even plays baby Moses. At family services, some of the preschool’s former students are now leading the congregation. When one little boy’s grandparents lost everything in the wildfires a few years ago, the kids learned tzedakah by raising money to buy them new towels when their grandson said they no longer had any. The examples of the importance of family at the school are endless.

“The letters our teachers get at the end of the year are amazing,” Medoff says. “Ways you don’t even think you’re impacting people’s lives, but you are. The role of preschools in getting people comfortable at temples is so important. We’re that bridge. And I know that here, we do a really good job of that…we always say we’re a family of families. I’m really proud of the community we’ve created.”

Beth Am Preschool

Congregation Beth Am

Carmel Valley’s Beth Am Preschool welcomes children and their families from a wide surrounding area, but it’s difficult to tell the school has a capacity for 160 children. That’s because, thanks to lots of growth, the preschool is divided into two different locations — the synagogue campus (for kids 18 months-3 years) and the satellite campus (for 4- and 5-year-olds) located at the San Diego Jewish Academy just a few miles away. (The preschool also serves infants through 18-month-olds in a parent participation capacity.) This arrangement works well for families who plan to enroll their children in SDJA for kindergarten, since the kids become accustomed to the campus as preschoolers.

“Educationally, our program is really appropriate,” says Tammy Fischman, director of the synagogue campus. “It’s a loving program where they really are ready for kindergarten when they leave us, and they’re really ready to enter into the world and to learn as secure, confident children.”

The synagogue’s rabbis alternate visits between the two preschool campuses, ensuring even the children at the satellite campus have the benefit of interacting with the clergy.

Beth Am Assistant Rabbi Matthew Earne, whose first child recently completed his first year in the preschool, just enrolled his second child in parent participation classes.

“As young parents, we were very anxious about letting go of our child, but that fear quickly subsided in a day or two because of how warm and caring the teachers were,” he says. “Within the first week, he wanted to be here.”

Rabbi Earne’s interest in the school and involvement with his son’s early education is reflective of many parents with children in the school.

“It’s difficult to raise your child alone, especially Jewishly,” Rabbi Earne says. “One of the things parents like about our preschool is you develop friendships with parents…I think in our day and age, the time for the greatest impact for a child and a family who has a Jewish identity is becoming the preschool years. And I think through our, the rabbis’, involvement, and through our engaging of parents and through our emphasis of creating Jewish moments, we take that new reality very seriously so that kids leave the preschool, for their age, with an advanced knowledge of Jewish holidays, Jewish language and Jewish values.”

Adds Fischman,  “The early years are not only a time to capture the children [Jewishly], they’re also a time to capture the parents. So the unaffiliated become affiliated and invested in the community…That’s a very special time in our families’ lives.”

Silverman Preschool

Tifereth Israel Synagogue

At almost 35 years old, Silverman Preschool at East County’s Tifereth Israel Synagogue knows what it takes to make a great Jewish preschool. The school, which serves children 18 months to 5 years old (and infants to 2-year-olds in a parent participation setting), takes a hands-on approach to education and favors the fun, the messy and the creative if it gets young children excited about learning.

“We don’t mind messy if it just means cleaning up with a vacuum cleaner or paint on the carpets,” says Yael Edelstein, the preschool’s director of eight years. “It’s preschool. We want the kids getting dirty and having had as many experiences as possible.”

With spacious classrooms and jungle-gym-like equipment for the little ones and three playgrounds, an enormous social hall and an enclosed cul-de-sac perfect for maneuvering bikes around toy traffic signs, there is no shortage of play-based activities to keep kids moving and exploring.

And learning is as much fun as playing at Silverman, whose teachers each bring their own set of talents to the classroom.
“Because each teacher has an amazing strength, we work toward that,” Edelstein says. “Often, and especially during Jewish holidays, we’ll have activities in every classroom, so the kids get to rotate.”

One teacher is musically inclined and lets kids try out her piano. Another teacher has a green thumb, so she teaches students to care for the school’s garden. Another is a great cook, and another is artistic.

“The kids get to know the different teachers, which is nice for the younger kids so that when they get to the next age group, they’ve already been to the classroom and know the teacher.”

When it comes time to learn the three ‘R’s, games are the preferred method.

“All the academic work is done through games,” Edelstein says. “They don’t do worksheets and workbooks. Kids think it’s just a game, but there are objectives and learning that take place every time…there are art projects and puppets and stories. It’s all done in a very fun, very childlike way.” And curriculum always revolves around Jewish holidays.

After-school enrichment programs are just as exciting and quite varied. Classes include ballet, Legos, mad science, cooking, bugs, yoga and Playball.

“My focus has always been on constantly improving the programming,” Edelstein says. “[I strive to] always incorporate the families in the children’s preschool experience, and I’m always looking for more original experiences for the kids. For the staff, this is more than just a job. They really do become involved with these families and end up teaching their siblings, especially those teachers who have been here for 15 or 18 years.”

Bill and Sid Rubin Preschool

Congregation Beth Israel

As a developmentally based preschool, Bill and Sid Rubin Preschool at Congregation Beth Israel recognizes that children are unique in their social, emotional, physical, spiritual and cognitive development. The task of the preschool, which was founded in 1977, is to nurture, guide, encourage and challenge each child based on his or her specific needs.

“We strive for learning through the process of learning,” says Tammy Vener, director of early childhood education at Beth Israel. “We focus on emerging curriculum, which means following some of the children’s leads.”

Vener, who is only the second person to hold her position, has directed Beth Israel’s early childhood education for 14 years. She explains that their teachers don’t “teach” academics in the traditional sense of the word; rather, kids learn their numbers, colors, letters and other age-specific skills by exposure.
“We really don’t teach those things, because if you have an environment like we have, the kids are exposed to all of that, and they naturally learn it. So we’re definitely not an academically based preschool, but there’s a lot of learning through things like music, art, movement and discovery.”

A lot of the preschool’s teaching style can be attributed to Reggio Emilia, a philosophy based on a small Italian village that pioneered the movement. Reggio Emilia encourages embracing the child as they are and allowing them to learn what they want to learn, not what is decided for them, Vener says.

The preschool also enjoys a compostable garden, whose bounty of veggies makes for healthy snacks for the kids.

The preschool, which serves kids 2-5, as well as kids under 2 in parent participation classes, has a large interfaith population — about 50 percent, says Vener, who emphasizes the school’s inclusive nature as essential to the continuity of Judaism. Judaism plays a vital role in the school’s curriculum, which is organized around the Jewish holidays and Shabbat.

Parents can see many of the activities that take place during class time through classroom blogs many of the teachers keep. Vener, an amateur photographer, also takes studio photos of the kids, which are then arranged in a “gallery” and sold to parents at a gallery opening and fundraiser.

“I think it’s really important to keep up with technology, and we’re always working toward that, because that’s what the parents are used to.”

And no matter which of the many local preschools a child attends, he or she is guaranteed to receive a warm, safe, loving Jewish environment.

“I think we have a good offering [of preschools] in San Diego,” Vener says. “We’re spread out a bit, so it’s kind of nice. People pick for different reasons, and I think there are plenty of kids to go around.”


San Diego Synagogue Preschools

Chabad Scripps Ranch — Chabad Hebrew Academy Preschool Village

10785 Pomerado Rd.

Scripps Ranch

(858) 566-1996 ext. 1203

Congregation Beth Am — Beth Am Preschool

5050 Del Mar Heights Rd.

Carmel Valley

(858) 481-2893

Congregation Beth El — Beth Montessori Preschool

8660 Gilman Dr.

La Jolla

(858) 452-3030

Congregation Beth Israel — Bill and Sid Rubin Preschool

9001 Towne Center Dr.

La Jolla

(858) 535-1144 ext. 3120

Temple Adat Shalom — Ganon Gil Preschool

15905 Pomerado Rd.


(858) 451-6558

Temple Emanu-El — Price Family Preschool

6299 Capri Dr.

San Diego

(619) 286-2999

Temple Solel — Early Childhood Education Center

3575 Manchester Ave.

Cardiff by the Sea

(760) 944-1285

Tifereth Israel Synagogue — Silverman Preschool

6660 Cowles Mountain Blvd.

San Diego

(619) 697-1948 ext. 114

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