Michelle Bernstein couldn’t believe the news when she first heard it. After all, what do you do when you lose someone so close, so quickly?
The early childhood director of Congregation Adath Jeshurun Preschool and Infant Center in Elkins Park was discussing her colleague, Barbara Greenberg, who headed the synagogue preschool’s special needs program since 1995. On Jan. 30, Greenberg died suddenly at home, at age 63, leaving friends, family — nearly everyone who knew her — stunned.
“We all felt very lost after she passed away,” says Bernstein, 39, and a mother of two. “She had taught us so much for so many years. She taught us how to look at children as a whole, as opposed to a disability. To look at what the individual child needed.”
Greenberg ran the SINAI program (Special Individual Needs Are Important) for a group of about eight to 10 children per year. From 9 a.m. until noon, Monday through Friday, she worked with kids who had difficulty in a typical classroom due to a host of developmental issues. The curriculum emphasizes language and social skills, and addresses sensory integration issues, and fine and gross motor delays.
“It’s been a very, very hard year for our entire staff,” acknowledges Bernstein. “We got through it as a community.” And it took some time, she says, to think about how to honor Greenberg’s memory and her work these past 17 years.
The staff formulated a three-prong approach. First, a group of two-dozen people participated in last weekend’s “Walk Now for Autism Speaks” in Philadelphia. Then, on Sunday, Nov. 10, an Israeli mosaic flag — crafted of stones, shell and grout by the kids — will be dedicated at a 2 p.m. ceremony at the synagogue. And in what’s slated to become an annual event, “Breakfast for Barbara” will take place in the spring as a fundraiser for preschool scholarships for the SINAI classroom. The base for this begins at $16,000, which came in as donations following Greenberg’s death.
“We kept asking, ‘What would Barbara want?’ ” says Bernstein. The answer: “She would want us to continue her legacy, and that’s what we do every day.”
Linda Cortese can attest to that legacy. Her only child, Jason, was approaching age 3 and not talking. Adath Jeshurun was his fourth preschool in 18 months.
“He wasn’t fully verbal until Barbara got her hands on him,” says the Wyndmoor resident, who works in the pharmaceutical industry. “He got verbal so quickly. When he started acquiring language, it was five to 10 words a week.
“He was more relaxed, more confident. He loved going to school. He lit up when he went into the classroom.”
Now 71⁄2, Jason attends public school. And though Cortese and her husband, James Curtis, aren’t Jewish, they chose AJ because they say it was the best place for their child, and also very welcoming.
“It’s a magical place, and I think Barbara had a lot to do with that,” says Cortese. “She took so much pride and joy in the children’s accomplishments. And she made us, the parents, feel like everything was OK.
“I cannot explain the impact this woman had. She set the bar for what to expect from educators.”
Greenberg graduated from Syracuse University and held a master’s degree in special education from Columbia University. She and her husband of nearly 41 years — Richard Greenberg, chief of urologic oncology at Fox Chase Cancer Center — were high school sweethearts from Long Island, N.Y.
“She was the center of our family,” says 31-year-old Julie Greenberg, the youngest of the couple’s three daughters. “She was the best. And she saw the best in everyone, something special in everyone, and she would make them see how special they were.”
Greenberg says her mother was devoted to her own aging parents, driving weekly to New Jersey to visit them. She learned to figure skate as an adult because her daughters loved doing so. And she was known to spoil the family dog.
But it usually came back to teaching. “She talked about work and the kids she taught all the time,” recalls Greenberg, who lives in New York City and plans to come in this week for the dedication. “She would say that being the parent of a special needs child is the hardest job.”
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer of Elkins Park says her son, George, was 3 when “flags came up.” He was on the waiting list for a year before starting at A.J.
“He loved going and made huge progress,” she says. As for her, “Barbara had wisdom and insight, and it helped me immensely. It was the first time when recognizing his developmental delays that I felt I had a partner — a professional to hold your hand.”
And that’s no small task; Kaplan-Mayer, 42, is director of special needs resources at the Jewish Learning Venture.
“For my son, Barbara just had a way. He had such difficulty with communication, but she saw his strengths, saw things he loved to do and made school fun. She was someone who believed in him.”
George, who has autism, is now 101⁄2 and goes to private school. She and her husband, Fred Kaplan-Mayer, also have an 8-year-old daughter. They kept in touch with Greenberg over the years and would discuss George’s progress. In fact, Kaplan-Mayer spoke with Greenberg two weeks before her death.
“She was as invested in him as the days when he was in her classroom,” says Kaplan-Mayer.
And she notes that her son is “doing really well in so many ways.”
She credits Greenberg with much of that evolvement: “Barbara was one of a kind. She lives on in the world through each one of the children — and their parents.”
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