Home Away From Homeby Brie Stimson January 3, 2018
Walking into the Garden Preschool in Vista feels like walking into a family reunion – where the family members get to see each other every day. Parents and kids, teachers and siblings and grandparents run around the courtyard and inside the classrooms talking and hugging, laughing and nurturing – and that’s just a first impression.
The nearly-four-year-old-school was the brainchild of Director Nechama Greenberg, who is married to the rabbi of Chabad Jewish Center of Oceanside/Vista.
“From when I was a little kid everybody said to me you’re going to be the one that’s gonna work in preschool … You’re so good with little kids,” Nechama told me while we interviewed inside the front entrance to the synagogue as she fittingly kept one eye on a sick child waiting for her father to pick her up.
When Nechama was about 15, her sister, her brother-in-law (who was a rabbi) and their two children moved to Long Island, and they would stay with a woman who had triplets before they bought their house. Nechama would often stay with them.
“And so the whole Shabbos I would sit and I would play with the children and I would do children’s services for [my sister] and I would really work a lot with the children so they always said to me you’re going to be with preschool,” she explained.
After high school she worked with a Chabad rabbi in Alaska. “They had an incredible teacher … so much patience so much kindness … and it was just an incredible vibe … and that was like my first internship,” she said. “I did the Judaic studies, but she ran the preschool and we worked side by side, I was her assistant and it was really an incredible experience. So when I came back to New York, I was very excited to work in preschool.”
Her sister had a preschool, so she went to work for her for a couple of years, moving from assistant teacher to teacher. After she gave birth to her first daughter, she finished the year and her family moved to San Diego. Once they moved to Oceanside, they began running a congregation out of their house, and Nechama started teaching Hebrew School and camp. “It’s very natural, it’s very easy for me to teach preschool, but teaching older children was a little bit more difficult, but I found a love for that over the years,” she said.
They bought the building in Vista about five years ago, and Nechama decided it was time to open a preschool. “When we were working with my Hebrew School children and my camp children … I realized there was really a strong need also for a preschool so that the children have a stronger foundation day in and day out,” she said.
They built the preschool as part of the Chabad building and planted a garden for the children to tend. “Being nurturing is extremely important,” she said. One of the parents told her the morning of our interview, “you’re so nurturing, it’s so different from everywhere else,” she told me blushing. Her philosophy? “It should be a home away from home for them.” The school started originally with just five children, one being hers. In the last three and a half years, the number has grown to 24.
I briefly met with two young parents in one of the classrooms before my interview with Nechama. Milana Dunlop and Dara Murdy met and became friends through the preschool. They explained to me that the relatively small size of the preschool was a plus for them because everyone knows everyone and it feels like family.
“What really attracted me to this school was the garden outside and the outdoor environment and also the Jewish culture and tradition that my son will get here as opposed to a traditional non-religious school,” Milana, whose two-year-old son Max attends the school, said. “It’s a way for us to be involved with the Jewish community and make new friends and celebrate old traditions and new and bring that aspect of Jewish culture back into our lives.”
Dara was brought up Jewish, but her husband is not. She said she doesn’t practice much, but she wants her son, Ethan, to have a foundation of Jewish values.
“Because of all the community work that Nechama puts together that involves all of the community, I’ve gotten to meet a lot of the parents of fellow preschool students and I’ve learned a lot of the families that send their children here are not Jewish at all,” she explained. “Not only do they send their child here, but they also come to the community events. They enjoy just that sense of togetherness and that intimacy. That, to me, speaks volumes.”
Indeed, Nechama celebrates the differences in her children’s backgrounds.
“Another very special aspect of our preschool is that we’re very diverse, and so we have children from all walks of life, and everybody’s blended and everybody’s included,” she told me. “Although we have a lot of families that are not necessarily Jewish, everybody embraces and everybody accepts.”
“In Judaism we’re very accepting and we of course believe in being good and kind people and so we’re a very diverse preschool and we have children from all walks of life. So not all of our children are Jewish and they all embrace the fact that we’re a Jewish preschool, but we embrace them for who they are as well.”
Back in the preschool courtyard the children were getting ready for their nap. I had a chance to talk with Sebastian, one of the elder statesmen at the school. He told me some important information: like the fact that he likes playing with balls and bikes and this week in Ms. Marla’s class he’s the bell ringer. I asked him what he likes the most about his teachers. “I like cuddling them!” he beamed. And that seems to be a communal feeling.
I last spoke with lead teacher Marla Elliott, who has more than 30 years of preschool experience. “She is love enveloped is how I describe her,” Marla said of Nechama without a hint of schmaltz.
And as I left the preschool, Nechama ran out to give me a hug and told me not to leave because she had forgotten to give me a plate of food. Despite my protests that my interviewees are not obligated to feed me, I was given a full plate of goodies.
Love enveloped – with a side of cookies. Α