When Shirley Rachlin started Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel's Richard E. Rudolph Jr. preschool program back in 1957, she aimed to provide the two dozen students under her watch with an arena for hands-on learning experiences.
So the Wyncote resident, now 81, had the children bake hamantashen, make puppets, celebrate Shabbat and sing songs with the rabbi, among other activities.
The preschool continues in that same vein today, only now it serves 60 students, has five classrooms, a summer camp and a new infant center under its roof.
As Beth Berman, the school's current director, said outright, "I call this the messy school."
"I want their hands to always be in paint or Play-Doh or cookie dough or making hamantashen," she said. "They all need to be running and dancing -- exercising their imagination."
Berman, 40, of Horsham, said that the school would spend the year celebrating "50 years of this philosophy" with a variety of events, including a record-hop fundraiser, Havdalah music concert and a special 50th-birthday brunch. The mother of two said that there will also be a workshop for the community on teaching spirituality to children, in addition to one for educators on bringing music into the classroom.
Leaps and Bounds
The school certainly has a lot to celebrate. When it first started out, the staff roster consisted of Rachlin and her sister Dorothy Cooper; they both worked part time. The school's two classrooms served 3- and 4-year-olds.
Rachlin explained that at that time -- a time when most mothers took care of the child-rearing process largely on their own -- she said that she was "kind of a pioneer" for offering a drop-off style early-education center.
But as the years passed, Rachlin said that "the women all really went back to work."
"Nursery schools grew and grew during those years," she said. "Parents wanted their kids in a safe, secure environment when they went to work."
By 1980, Rachlin noted that there were enough students to fill four classes, and even enough to generate a waiting list. The school soon began accepting toddlers and hired four more teachers to accommodate the growing demand. At that point, Rachlin came on as a full-time director; she worked at the school a total of 34 years.
In fact, Rachlin is just one of three directors in the school's history. She said that there has always been a low turnover rate; one instructor, Jill Levine, has stayed an impressive 25 years.
Today, the staff consists of 12 educators, as well as several enrichment teachers who specialize in areas like gymnastics, art, cooking, drama, music and Hebrew language.
The current space boasts five classrooms, plus an outdoor playscape with a garden, some easels, climbing structures and a sandbox in the shape of Israel.
New developments are afoot as well: This month, the school opened an infant center for those as young as 6 weeks old. The center will also soon unveil a nature room for environmentally themed projects, such as gardening and bark-rubbings.
In addition to meeting the children's developmental needs, Berman said that a key goal has always been to integrate Jewish values into the program, such as the ideas of tikkun olam ("repairing the world"), performing mitzvot and being menschen, or "caring people."
But rather than learn these ideas in a formal setting, Berman said that teachers try to introduce such themes through tactile, hands-on experiences.
For example, every Monday, kids begin the week by smelling a spice box (as they would do on Havdalah, the concluding ritual of Shabbat) and singing songs with the cantor.
"We're not a project-based school," she said. "Our kids are not going to leave with a cutout shofar. We're very experiential."
Berman also noted that the school strives to get parents involved, hosting family chavurot, pizza dinners with the rabbi and programs like "Pajama-Ramas," where children recite prayers in bedtime apparel.
The director emphasized the effectiveness of this level of engagement. She said that many of the preschool alumni, like current Keneseth Israel president Andrew J. Flame, go on to take leadership positions in the synagogue.
Others, like Mark Langsfeld, 37, of Meadowbrook, eventually send their children back to Richard E. Rudolph.
"We've gone from generation to generation at this synagogue," said Langsfeld, whose 5-year-old Jordan recently finished the preschool program, and whose son Max, 20 months, just started at the infant center.