After sending her two daughters to nursery school in portable classrooms at Temple Beth Sholom, Rachel Schor was thrilled that her 2-year-old son Noah would be among the first preschoolers to start the school year in a new, state-of-the-art, eco-friendly building.
Noah’s classroom, one of six in the new facility that is attached to the Roslyn Heights synagogue, is bright, spacious, colorfully furnished and equipped with learning toys and equipment to please any toddler. A door leads to a new environmentally conscious playground, and adjoining the classroom is a full kitchen, with a larger playroom right down the hall.
The Barnet & Annette Ostrow Early Childhood and Lifelong Learning Center, an ambitious $5.9 million project, which opened in November, was the culmination of a decade of planning and more than a year of construction, striving to bring the pursuit of lifelong Jewish learning to a new level within the North Shore community.
Louis Naviasky, president of the Conservative congregation, said that the new educational center was a significant addition for the synagogue.
“We realized 10 years ago that our modular trailers with a fake brick façade were inadequate,” he said, “and as other neighboring synagogues and JCCs began to do renovations and to modernize their facilities, our competition increased and it became even more necessary to move forward.”
Three years ago, the congregation approved the plans for the building, at which time professional fundraisers were hired to facilitate the efforts. Over the next two years, $4.5 million was raised, Naviasky said. But the greatest challenge, he said, was to complete the project at the same time that the economy collapsed.
“We have been fortunate that most donors made good on their pledges and we opened the new school within budget and on schedule,” he said. “We see the new center as a gateway for membership. Not everybody wants to support just an early childhood center or just an adult learning center, but lifelong learning is an important component in Jewish education.”
The new facility was designed to be environmentally sensitive. Components include skylights, energy efficient lighting, toxic-free carpeting, flooring and paint — all part of the synagogue’s ongoing philosophy of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, and in keeping with the Jewish value of shomrei adamah, or protecting the earth.
Gila Hadani Ward, director of lifelong learning, shared her enthusiasm over the new center.
“We’ve added special alcoves to meet the various needs of our families,” she said. “There’s a parent alcove for parents to be able to congregate, a library alcove with large comfortable cushions for quiet time, an art alcove with kids’ work on exhibit. Our final stage will be an adult alcove, which will serve as an adult learning center when it is completed.”
The early childhood center at Temple Beth Sholom is guided by the theme: “Play is children’s work.” The content of daily activities is related to Jewish living through identification with culture and tradition, including the celebration of Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Although a dip in enrollment from last year — 64 down to 43 — was a disappointment, it did not come as a surprise.
“Something new always brings uncertainty,” Hadani Ward explained.
Schor added, “There were families who were worried that the project was hindered by bad weather and wouldn’t be completed on time, so they decided to enroll their children in neighboring nursery schools that had completed their renovations several years ago.”
Helayne Cohen, director of the early childhood center, said that the hope is that innovative programs including Mommy & Me and Baby & Me, as well as an expanded summer camp on the horizon to include 2 year-olds, will attract new families and increase enrollment.
“We also introduced Shabbatini, for families with children between 2 and 12 months, to include our youngest members in celebrating Shabbat,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for young parents to meet one another.”
Naviasky added that an aggressive marketing plan will be implemented over the next few months.
“We’ve got a quality staff, a quality program and a quality facility, but the competition is great and we’re all looking for a piece of the pie,” he said.
Of her son’s first month at school, Schor said, “The teachers, mission and philosophy are unchanged and the experience is as wonderful as ever, but it’s great to be in a building with beautiful indoor and outdoor space.” n