Little Wylie Berman, heeding nature’s call, was christening (so to speak) Kiddie Korner’s new changing table. Hands — and tush —on.
September’s dedication ceremony for the new Chabad day care center in Brooklyn Heights had just ended, the ribbon duly cut by local Rep. Yvette Clarke, and the doors opened to the parents and their children who were to populate it.
Gonzo Berman, 11-month-old Wylie’s dad who handled the diapering, pronounced the infant room’s table good.
The Sunday festivities commemorated the opening of Kiddie Korner’s sleek new million-dollar facility on Montague Street.
At 350,000 square feet, with warm blonde-wood fixtures and soft tile floors, it boasts large windows, padded stairs and rounded corners, plus toddler-scale bathroom facilities and an overall environment of clutter-free airy spaciousness.
“We wanted to convey a calm feeling,” says Kiddie Korner Director Shternie Raskin. “We told the architects we were going for a Zen feeling, something that was like a yoga studio.”
While yoga studios have become a dime a dozen in New York, day care centers like Kiddie Korner, where parents can bring children as young as 2 months old, are shockingly rare.
While many day care facilities in the New York area serve children 2 years and older, licensed infant day care — particularly in institutional, rather than home or “family day care” settings — is hard to find. And Jewish infant day care programs are even scarcer, with a handful of programs on Long Island, including a new one in the Five Towns JCC, as well as programs at the Staten Island JCC and a few other JCCs in the New York area.
Three years ago, retired lawyer Tamara Spolan tried to establish a Jewish day care center in Manhattan, but she says she “ran out of steam” because no Jewish early childhood institutions were interested in partnering with her.
Infants are “the biggest need” in child care, says Debby Perelmuter, the Jewish Child Care Association’s vice president of services to the Jewish community. “But it also has very strict regulations” on staffing and facilities “so there’s not a lot of it around.”
Perelmuter’s agency oversees a network of mostly Jewish family day care providers, with 140 small home-based day care centers in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island serving over 1,000 children. Such facilities, many of which are run by Russian and Bukharan immigrants, are easier to obtain licensing for than large centers and often, because they are more intimate environments, can be more appealing to parents. The JCCA, which provides training and other assistance for people starting such home-based centers, currently is looking for more providers.
Kiddie Korner also goes by the name Gan Menachem, in honor of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson. It offered infant day care for 10 years out of nearby Congregation B’nai Avraham, the synagogue led by Raskin’s husband, Rabbi Aaron Raskin. However, that space could not accommodate growing enrollment, so eight years ago
Kiddie Korner/Gan Menachem stopped taking infants while it focused on building the Montague Street center. The new site, open weekdays (except Jewish holidays) from 8 a.m.-6 p.m., accommodates 28 children under age 2, eight of which are under age 1. Soon they will be able to take more children over age 1. Sixty-five older children are at Kiddie Korner’s synagogue site. Already, it has a wait list of more than 30 children.
Given Kiddie Korner’s apparent success, why is Jewish day care so rare? Caring for infants is expensive and highly regulated — which means there’s little profit motive.
Opening an infant day-care facility is “very daunting,” explains Susan Remick Topek, Long Island director for early childhood education and family engagement at the Board of Jewish Education of New York-SAJES.
“You have very specific requirements: the size of the room, number of children, the kind of facility, what’s in the room, what’s not in the room,” she says, adding that “honestly, when you do infant day care, making money cannot be your top priority.”
Raskin echoes that assessment.
“The problem is that they only allow eight babies from ages 0 to 1 per center,” she says. “It’s expensive, especially when you can have 15 3-year-olds in the same room instead.”
In addition, “the licensing is hard and the income is not worth it unless you charge crazy amounts of money.”
Kiddie Korner charges $26,000 per year for infants enrolled full time, but financial aid is available. While $26,000 sounds like a lot of money, it’s considerably less than hiring a full-time nanny; in most New York neighborhoods, nannies command more than $15 per hour.
Raskin sees her day care less as a moneymaker than a service to the community — and an opportunity to engage Jewish families.
“There’s such a need [for day care] in this neighborhood,” Raskin says. “And once they come in at this age, then they continue on.”
Raskin sees the day care center as a particularly useful tool for reaching interfaith families.
“When their baby’s born that’s when they have the decision of what to do,” she says. “If you catch them at that time and they decide to bring up their child Jewish, they’ll send them to Jewish day care. If you wait a year, then there are so many other options, the interest in sending their child to a Jewish day care may wear off.”
In recent years, Jewish organizations, recognizing the potential of engaging young families, have placed increased focus on early childhood education. The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life has been working with Jewish preschools around the country to improve their quality and Jewish content, and the Jewish Education Service of North America, together with the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America, is currently developing a new Jewish early childhood education initiative. A Grinspoon Foundation program called the PJ Library sends out free Jewish books and videos to families with small children.
Programs for infants and small children “are really gateways for families,” says the BJE’s Remick Topek. “When you see yourselves as a gateway it’s about how can you bring people in, make them comfortable and welcome and part of the community.”
Yet Jewish day care has received relatively little attention.
That may be changing, however.
“Early childhood centers are starting to understand that you need to begin at zero,” Remick Topek says, adding that good Jewish day care programs “provide a service that’s necessary and establish a community for parents that need a place for their infants.”
Roberta Goodman, the director of research and standards for the Steinhardt Foundation’s Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative (JECEI) notes that “studies have shown that the Jewish community is severely lacking in day care,” and says the foundation is encouraging Jewish nursery schools to expand into day care.
While Kiddie Korner’s Raskin knows of no other licensed Jewish infant day care centers in Brooklyn, she reports that Chai Tots, a Chabad nursery school in Park Slope is looking into opening one.
Raskin says her day care and nursery school bring in “a person or two” each year to the Chabad synagogue. But she says that many more families who’ve enrolled in her program go on to join Reform or Conservative congregations.
“Wherever they’re comfortable, but at least they’re doing something Jewish,” she says. “It brings Jewish awareness into their home.”
Indeed, although a quarter of the children at Kiddie Korner are not Jewish, Jewish programming is a big part of the day.
Teacher Chana Rogatsky puts her youngest charges through structured activities — outside the customary infantile proclivities for feeding, sleeping and the inevitable diaper changes.
Rogatsky, with the help of specialists and assistants, moves babies’ limbs to the beat of recorded music, much of it Jewish, in “modeling behavior” exercises. She guides them through tactile play, like kneading raw challah dough.
Nikki Rooker enrolled her daughter Alison, sight unseen, while the raw plaster was still wet on yet unopened Gan Menachem’s walls. The few other infant-friendly centers she called offered only places on lengthy waiting lists.
At the time Kiddie Korner had both a ready spot along with an inviting feel.
“For us maternity leave is an issue,” says Rooker, a mid-level advertising director. “When it runs out, you’re stuck, unless you find other arrangements when you go back to work. Kiddie Korner is close by, well run and clean.
“As a new mother maybe I am a little paranoid. Alison’s dad — my fiancé — and myself are only children. We would prefer to have Alison socialized by the company of other children. That’s why we’re choosing day care over a nanny.”
Although not Jewish, Rooker is nevertheless enthusiastic about the strong Jewish programming at Kiddie Korner.
“We’re not as comfortable with other religions as we are with Judaism,” says Rooker. “We grew up with many Jewish friends. We like the open environment where our daughter will be learning about different religions and culture.
We like the Jewish tradition of family and education.”
Beyond basic in-classroom care, center professionals make a point of counseling infants’ moms and dads on their parenting skills where helpful. “At 2 months old, we look more toward the parents,” says Raskin. “At two years, the focus is on the kids. The parents pick up cues from our caregivers.”
Of course, Kiddie Korner, as a Chabad-run enterprise, has a ritual Jewish mission underlying its operations, certainly for its Jewish clients. “Infants understand what’s going on, the same as do older children,” says Rogatsky. “The things they experience stay with them forever, like when they wake up from a nap and we sing ‘modeh ani’ [the first morning prayer] to them. They’re sponges at that age.”
Lehman Weichselbaum is a freelance writer for The Jewish Week. Julie Wiener is associate editor.