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‘A heart bigger than three counties’

Deb Cohen retires from Springfield JCC’s ELC after 30 years

By Stacey Dresner

SPRINGFIELD – Deb Cohen recalls the beauty of celebrating Shabbat every Friday with all of the young students at the Springfield Jewish Community Center’s Early Learning Center.

“I loved it. They got to know my pattern – what was going to come next. Each classroom would stand up and sing a Shabbat song to everyone else, so it gave them the opportunity to strut their stuff. And then I would do the service with them — do all the blessings and share challah — and then they all knew that there were songs that were my absolute favorites. They all knew how to do the Shema – my jazzy version,” Cohen said. “I have such great memories.”

After 30 years and many more memories, Deb Cohen retired from her position as executive director of the ELC on Aug. 14.  

The J’s staff held a party celebrating Cohen’s many years at the ELC with a car parade of staff and ELC families past and present and a socially-distanced
get together with cupcakes on the picnic tables in the
J’s backyard.

There is no doubt she will be missed. 

“She is one of the most generous, loving people I know in terms of working with the kids and the families at the center,” said Michael Paysnick, executive director of the JCC. “She was an incredibly valuable member of our team. Always ready to pitch in, always ready with an idea, she has a great sense of humor, which helped immensely. Watching the interchange she has with the kids — she has always just exuded a love of children.”

Deb Cohen says her love for children and her desire to be a teacher began when she was a child growing up in Longmeadow.

“That what I always wanted to do. What was my favorite thing? I wanted to be able to write on the chalkboard,” she laughed. 

She went on to major in Education at Westfield State, now Westfield University. She married her husband Jeff right out of college and had their first child Sam, when she was almost 23. She had her daughter Miriam two years later. 

“I was lucky to be able to stay at home with them until my youngest was ready for preschool,” she recalled. “And at that time I found out that the JCC needed someone to run their toddler program. The first years it was five mornings a week.”

Cohen led the program, which included an hour of interaction between parents and their toddlers, then an hour for the parents to either gather with Cohen or a child development specialist for discussions while their children enjoyed activities with a teacher.

The next year ELC started a Judaic track for four year olds who would stay for two more hours of basic Judaic learning.

“We would do the aleph bet, some vocabulary, some kind of art project with Judaic theme. It was because we were hoping to prepare the children for the day school experience,” she explained.

Cohen left the J a few years later to get her master’s degree in Early Childhood Education and Administration. (She also has a certificate from Hebrew College in Judaic studies).

While getting her master’s, she worked as a permanent substitute kindergarten teacher at Heritage Academy.

Carlin Trietsch, the director of the Springfield J’s preschool at the time – and the mother of one of Cohen’s kindergartners — told her that the position of assistant director at the J’s early learning center was open.

Cohen applied and got the job. 

When Trietsch became adult education director at the J, Cohen became director of the ELC. She has also run the J’s summer preschool camp.

“Deb has a heart that is bigger than three counties,” Trietsch said. “We worked very closely together for over 25 years when I was director and she was assistant director. She has a way of talking to children and parents that always puts them at ease. She has a way of making people feel like they are the most important person in the room at the time. She is an amazing person.”

Cohen says that she has enjoyed forging relationships with her students and their families.

“The thing I am most proud of is the relationships with the parents,” Cohen said. “I wanted to have a relationship with the parents, not only as director of the preschool to give their children the best education they could have, but I also really wanted to be a resource for them. As I got older and they therefore got younger, I wanted to be that person with the early childhood experience and knowledge that they did not have yet… And I do believe that I was that resource.”

Adina Elfant was one of those parents.

“Deb was there when I first went to check out the child care at the JCC,” Elfant said. “She was warm and friendly with me and instantly started to engage with my daughter.  It didn’t take long for her to win me over and I never regretted it. All three of my children went through their program and Deb was a source of consistency and support throughout my eight years of drop-offs and pick-ups.  Everybody knew Ms. Deb. What a huge loss for the program at the JCC but a well deserved retirement for Deb.”

Cohen used her expertise in early childhood education not only at the JCC but in a column on parenting in The Reminder.” 

“It was called ‘Dear Debbie’ and it was so much fun,” she said. “Parents would ask questions on things like sibling rivalry; toilet training was a big topic; bedtime was always a big one. It was great and I loved doing it.”

Cohen also exhibited her talents as an administrator over the years, helping to grow and improve the ELC program and infrastructure.

“Physically, I was most proud of the infant room. We really expanded a lot under my tenure. We saw the need and my PTO was unbelievable,” she recalled “We had a blast fundraising and between the PTO and the parents and the portion from the JCC, we were able to open up this amazing infant room. I’m really proud of that space, and the cooperation between the parents and the early childhood administration and the total administration of the J. It was really amazing.” 

“Obviously Deb is an expert in early childhood education, but a lot of the credit for growing the preschool goes to her,” Paysnick said. “During her time there was the expansion of the toddler program and the development of the infant room. When we opened the infant room, it was so well received that it was filled within a month.”

Now that she has retired, Cohen is enjoying spending time with her three grandchildren. She also has more time to participate in the local Chabad’s Women’s Circle morning programs she enjoys and wants to join a book club – all of the things that are difficult to do when working fulltime. Once the Covid pandemic is over, Cohen said she hopes to spend at least one day a week back at the JCC giving  swimming lessons to the little ones she misses – and who over the years have taught her as many lessons as she has taught them.

“What I learned the most is that if you listen to children, you are going to hear the truth,” she said. “They are innocent and yet they are brilliant at the same time. There is no prejudice in a child and that is what I love.”

Main Photo: Deb Cohen with some of her beloved students.

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