By Laura Porter
WESTBOROUGH – Come early September, Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough will welcome the sound of piping voices and laughter as its new preschool throws open the doors to its very first class.
The Play and Learn School (PALS), which is now enrolling students ages 2.9 to 4 years, will provide a multi-faceted educational and childcare program “based on the idea that children learn best through open ended, child-directed play carefully guided by knowledgeable educators,” says the temple website.
While emphasizing diversity and inclusivity, PALS will also be a Jewish preschool, filling the void created last summer when the Boroughs JCC closed.
With preschoolers, says Rabbi Joe Eiduson, rabbi-educator at B’nai Shalom, Jewish content means that, “we are talking about values and ethics and Jewish ideals taught through the curriculum of the school.” That approach will include a weekly Shabbat celebration, with music, song and a Shabbat Star of the Week, in addition to recognizing Jewish holidays and special programming.
That said, he stresses that PALS is “not only a school for Jewish kids: it’s a school for preschoolers. And we hope that diversity will strengthen the school in the long run.”
Discussion about creating a new preschool began at B’nai Shalom virtually as soon as the Boroughs JCC announced its end, which meant that there would no longer be a Jewish preschool anywhere between Natick and Worcester.
“While the JCC was in existence, that need was being met,” says Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz. “When it closed, we wanted to fill that void.”
Extensive research included a study of the temple building and facilities as well as a more general exploration of early childhood education. They discovered that “we have the space and the capacity to be able to do a startup program within our congregational space,” she says. With the board of director’s wholehearted support, they were then able to move forward.
Next steps included preparing the physical plant of the school as well as hiring a preschool director, a process that brought them early childhood expert Amy Scott. Rabbi Eiduson describes Scott as a “master level preschool director. She’s [hiring] master level teachers. She is someone with twenty years’ experience in the field working with others who have years of experience.”
Scott’s commitment to education has run the gamut, from her very first job as a bus monitor to an adjunct teaching position in the laboratory preschool at Regis College.
She notes that, “I have always known I wanted to work with children, advocate for families, advocate for kids, give back to the community.”
Over the course of her career, “I’ve been a teacher, a lead teacher, site director, assistant director,” she says, working in religious and non-religious schools, for-profit schools and not-for-profit along the way. Teaching while pursuing a master’s degree gave her the chance to “integrate all the things I was learning into classroom settings.”
“I’ve always been fortunate to land in positions where I can collaborate with some really great minds, and I’ve had some amazing mentors,” she says. “For me, it has kept my flame burning very brightly for the field of education.”
With a serendipitous twist, one of Scott’s early mentors was educator Renee Gould, who is a member of B’nai Shalom and a consultant for the new preschool.
In June, the Play and Learn School received its provisional licensure from the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, the culmination of a lengthy process.
“There were policies to create, documents to consider,” says Rabbi Eiduson. “It was all necessary work – it really made us figure out what was best for our students.”
The initial license is for 18 children, a number kept deliberately small so that “we can grow our program in the right way,” says Scott. “We want to make sure people understand who we are and what we want to do.”
When the school opens on Sept. 5, the core program will run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. There will also be an extended day program available from 2 to 6 p.m., with options for early drop off in the morning beginning at 7:30 a.m.
Plans are to integrate parent education classes as well.
“It’s not just the children coming to school; it’s family centered,” says Scott. “We want to make sure the whole family is involved in this process.”
Rabbi Eiduson is delighted that so many members of B’nai Shalom, beginning with the board, have been enthusiastic from the outset. People have donated time or items necessary to get the classrooms ready. When the preschool needed a pediatrician to be available for consultations and to review health policies and health forms, all six pediatricians in the congregation volunteered.
“For all of the different areas we need, there are members who will step forward and help us,” he says.
Involvement with a Jewish preschool has long been identified as a critical factor in bringing families into Judaism.
“We know from our experience and from research that the opportunity for children and their parents to make connections and start to experience Jewish life right from the beginning of family life is setting a wonderful foundation for a future where Jewish identity is a strong piece of who they are and their family life,” says Rabbi Gurevitz.
Nonetheless, she stresses that, although they planned from the outset to celebrate Judaism and teach Jewish values at PALS, “We were most interested in providing a high quality preschool education.”
And the goal is to provide that quality education for “any family in the community.”
“There are a lot of people who like the idea of the values component,” she says. “They like that their children are being taught a little about morals and values and how to treat each other, and those values are very close to the core of the philosophy of the preschool.”
For more information or to enroll your child, please call (508) 366-7191, email director Amy Scott at PALS@cbnaishalom.org or visit the Play and Learn School’s webpage at www.cbnaishalom.org/learning/the-play-and-learn-school-at-cbs/.