In celebration of Shavuot last year, Rabbi Scott Meltzer of Ohr Shalom Synagogue, dressed as Moses, marched across the far field of the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla. He waved his arm, beckoning a few hundred preschool children and their teachers — the “Israelites” — to follow him out of Egypt to the Promised Land. The hill in the field became Mount Sinai, which “Moses” climbed to receive the Ten Commandments from God. Below, at the base of the “mountain,” the “Israelites” sang, danced and celebrated with a party.
But Rabbi Meltzer is more than a local rabbi offering his services in a holiday celebration and role-play activity for preschoolers. He’s also a parent of one of the approximately 370 preschoolers who attended the celebration and who are students at the JCC’s Nierman Preschool.
The activity is just one example of the numerous ways the staff at Nierman find to celebrate Judaism in a very big way, says preschool director Alma Hadash Geiger. From Rosh Chodesh and weekly Shabbat to Passover, Chanukah and Purim, not a single opportunity is missed to impart on the students — whose ages range from babies as young as 9 months to children age 5 almost ready to enter kindergarten — some pretty sophisticated knowledge. For Rosh Chodesh, it’s the phases of the moon; for Passover, it’s learning not only the biblical story, but also how to behave properly in a theater setting, when the kids watch their parents act out the story onstage in the JCC’s own theater. (Students also have the JCC’s state-of-the-art gym and other facilities at their disposal.)
“It’s all through fun, it’s all through play, it’s all through music, but the sophistication of the knowledge blows me away, and I’ve been working here a long time,” says Hadash Geiger, who started her career as a Jewish educator before transitioning to her current supervisory role at the JCC in 1988.
Sophistication manifests itself in other ways, too.
From language immersion and enrichment options in Chinese, Spanish, Russian and Hebrew to advanced music selections and higher-level science concepts like physics, teachers and staff regularly expose students to curricula more advanced than many preschools.
“Our teachers are so experienced,” Hadash Geiger says. “They don’t need to [be reminded of] the developmental stages for a 4-year-old or a 3-year-old. They know that, because they’ve had so many years of experience and because we’re such a great community and we collaborate. [The teaching is] at a much higher level.”
One of those teachers is Sue Kingery, a veteran teacher at Nierman who teaches 4- and 5-year-olds, as well as science, math and cooking afternoon enrichment classes.
“I have parents who were doctors, and Sue picked up things about their children that they didn’t,” Hadash Geiger says, “and they said, ‘I would not have my child go to kindergarten without going through Sue.’ So that’s how trained our teachers are, and Sue happens to be one of the best at it. She’s very, very good.”
It’s truly a tightly knit community of parents, educators, students and professional staff at Nierman Preschool, Hadash Geiger says. It’s no wonder “Our Happy Place” has become the school’s tagline.
Parent Beth McNeill can attest to that. Though she and her family aren’t Jewish, they fell in love with Nierman and have enjoyed the results of sending their two children there.
“There’s so much to say,” McNeill exclaims of the school’s assets. “First of all, the culture of the teachers, the warmth. The attention, the focus and the experience…and the education the children get here. Confidence-building is amazing…I know if you see a kid who’s happy, comfortable in their skin and feeling very grounded, then they can learn an enormous amount, and that has been proven to me twice. The number of programs, the after-school enrichment, the after-school sports, all of that right here, so kids build a community while they’re here…My kids love it. This is a place we never want to leave. These are ties we want to keep nurturing and skills we want to keep developing: social skills and academic skills and life skills. It’s a place you never leave.”
And as much as parents and students like Beth and her kids never want to leave Nierman, the Nierman staff doesn’t like to lose its students and their families.
“We’re not just a preschool, we’re a community, and we don’t want to let people go,” adds Hadash Geiger, who emphasizes the small-village, intimate, family-feel despite the preschool’s large size. “We want to see them at Camp JC, the youth programs, the after-school programs and J*Company, and that’s something else that the J offers. Where the preschool ends, other departments pick up.”
But Nierman Preschool’s mission isn’t to teach its students end products. Rather, its focus is on teaching the foundations upon which students can build later, and to make that education specific to each child.
“We’re not teaching a child how to hold a bat and hit the ball,” Hadash Geiger analogizes. “We’re teaching the foundations that are going to develop all the muscles and coordination so if that child wants to pick up a bat, they’ll have it, because you can teach a child anything. If we wanted to teach addition, reading or worksheets, we could do that, but you’re cutting the creativity, the exploration and the discovery. We want to emphasize for every child to explore their bodies, their feelings, their experiences, their social interactions and conflict resolution…so when we send them out, they’re as kindergarten-ready as possible.”
When Ofir Gonen sent his youngest child to Nierman a few years ago soon after moving to San Diego from Israel, his child had a very difficult time adjusting to life in the U.S. Nierman’s staff worked with Gonen’s son patiently until he returned to his normal, happy self within a few months. By the time he graduated preschool, he was kindergarten-ready.
Sending his son to Nierman was how Gonen came to be an integral part of the preschool himself. As the former superintendent of physical education for the Tel Aviv Ministry of Education and the owner and former operator of a children’s gym in Israel, Gonen is in his second year as the preschool’s physical education specialist. In his role, he not only teaches P.E. to normally developing children, but he is certified as a therapeutic instructor for children who have ADHD, autism and developmental coordination disorders.
In fact, in its philosophy of inclusion, Nierman Preschool has become known among area preschools for its acceptance of and ability to treat children with developmental challenges. Though it cannot diagnose disorders, its staff — including Gonen (who focuses on gross motor skills), other teachers, its on-site occupational therapist (who focuses on fine motor skills) and on-site social worker — are trained to spot symptoms of possible problems and refer students to doctors for evaluations. If an evaluation comes back positive, staff might recommend that a child enter one of Gonen’s P.E. classes for individualized attention in a group setting.
“The typically developing children become models for the children with special needs,” Hadash Geiger says.
For both special-needs and normal-needs children, Gonen uses the knowledge response system as his teaching method.
Explains Gonen, knowledge response teaches physical activity to children by making them aware and knowledgeable of the right way to control their bodies efficiently and accurately.
“[Knowledge response] gives children the right stimulation during class so when they do the activity, they understand by themselves if they’re doing [it correctly], or if they need to find a different way to do [a movement] more efficiently. We always believe there is a connection between the body and the mind. We don’t separate them, especially at these young ages…I don’t believe there are many cases [in which] you see only motor skills difficulties or only cognitive difficulties. At young ages, many times, they go together.”
In fact, every teacher at Nierman employs this idea of sensory-motor integration, whether they’re teaching P.E. or science.
Explains Hadash Geiger, some classrooms have few decorations on the walls, or play no music, because the students can’t handle so much sensory stimulation. In other classes, music and art are plentiful. It’s a matter of understanding the children in a particular group and adapting the classroom to meet their needs.
It’s something Gonen does every day. For all his students, he also makes sure to incorporate lifelong social skills into his curriculum.
“Ofir teaches them listening skills in the gym,” Hadash Geiger says. “It’s P.E., but he’s giving them a lifelong skill, which is to listen, and you need to follow my directions…Those are beautiful life skills that they’re getting in the gym for P.E. The skills are transferable, and he does it so beautifully.”
Gonen takes another unusual approach that he learned while working with children and in physical education in Israel: focusing on the whole child — on developing a holistic person — and with that, recognizing each child as unique.
“Each child has a different personality, and you need to find it and give them the right exercise to really develop themselves,” he says. “The variety is really huge…of personalities, and from that, the variety of exercises you do with the kids.”
Adds Hadash Geiger, “We don’t want to make them all the same, but they need to be able to function in society the best way that they can…as San Diego childcare expert Barbara Chernofsky said, they’re little adults under construction.”
Registration for the 2011-2012 school year opens this month, and spaces usually fill within a few weeks. For more information or to register, go to www.lfjcc.org/preschool or call Nierman Preschool at (858) 457-0398.