FELS Points in New Direction With TBI Move

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The Lokoff Early Learning Center is pairing up with Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell to relocate and expand its services for their early childhood learning environment.
 

The Federation Early Learning Services is moving its Lokoff center — four miles west.
 
The Lokoff Early Learning Center is pairing up with Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell to relocate and expand its services for their early childhood learning environment.
 
Lokoff’s current location, which is one of eight in the greater Philadelphia area, is in an office building, so the move to the synagogue will provide more space. 
 
Maddy Malis, president and CEO of FELS, which is funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said over the course of a year, FELS caters to about 1,000 children across the region.
 
As a mainstay in the community since the 1980s, when it expanded its locations, she said FELS provides Jewish education to help families — many of whom are unaffiliated with synagogues — create a relationship with FELS. That relationship lasts several years for families with multiple children, and “they get connected in a way they may not have to their Jewish roots. We’re really exposed to Jewish rituals and traditions on a regular basis.”
 
FELS made the announcement in December 2015 and plans to make the move official this June.
 
The current Lokoff center is equipped with playgrounds, but at TBI, they will gain a chapel and sanctuary, a kitchen, a safe parking lot, secured access with individual swipe cards, a swimming pool, and nine classrooms.
 
TBI is a Conservative synagogue that serves more than 400 families. The clergy will also be a welcome addition to the Lokoff community. 
 
“We don’t have that kind of space accommodation where we are currently,” Malis acknowledged. “Being located in a synagogue, we will have access to the clergy who will become regularly integrated into our program.”
 
For now, tuition will not change after the move for the 2016-2017 school year. 
 
FELS has been providing child care and early childhood education for families of all backgrounds for 105 years. FELS applied to be sponsored by the Jewish Federation in 1927, and it has been supported ever since.
 
The FELS curriculum combines current research with high-quality knowledge about early childhood learning — similar to TBI’s current childhood learning program — and Malis said they are dedicated to blending the two in a seamless transition. 
 
“We are committed to making sure that the children we provide care for — and we start with children as young as 6 weeks of age, and some of our programs provide care up to the age of 12 — it’s important for us to know that our kids are feeling safe and loved. While they’re under our care, they can develop the skills that they need so they can enter school ready to learn.”
 
Malis recognized that many parents at both TBI and FELS were surprised to hear about the move. 
 
“For the Lokoff families, for many of them who live closer to TBI, they were very excited about it. Others, who the commute is going to make it impossible for them to relocate with us, have expressed very serious grave sadness,” she explained. “A lot of the Lokoff families, this is their second or third child, and so this is really like they’re leaving home.”
 
The FELS staff has held individual and group tours at TBI to illustrate the benefits of the move. 
 
The concerns have been similar for both TBI and Lokoff members — like maintaining the level of camaraderie and closeness that the teachers have with the kids — “which, for me, resonates: Everybody loves where their kids are and they’re worried they’re going to lose that,” Malis said. “Our commitment is to try and continue that warm feeling.”
 
Steven Gable, the immediate past chair of the FELS board of directors, said synagogues have historically had programs that started as day cares, but with limited hours and different needs. 
 
“As they’ve grown,” he continued, “as TBI’s program has grown to its expanded hours and a program that looks more like full-day programs that FELS runs that are early learning preschool programs as opposed to just day care, synagogues like TBI have looked to FELS and said, ‘This is now more complicated — you are the experts.’ ”
 
David Pollack, the current chair of the FELS board of directors, added that the transition’s synergy is very palpable. 
 
The FELS curriculum is rich in Jewish culture, traditions and holiday celebrations, so “members will flow from the schools to the congregations, and it really promotes and enhances both organizations.”
 
However, Pollack noted that not every child in the program is Jewish. 
 
Pollack, who is also a pediatrician, has treated kids who he didn’t know were a part of the FELS family, “and an Asian child would recite the Hamotzi,” he recalled, “bringing that message home to their parents on Friday night. It’s incredibly positive for these non-Jewish families to 
experience Judaism. We are spreading a very positive message out there.”
 
Pollack said working with synagogues has been a priority for FELS for about the past 15 years, and they currently work with four synagogues throughout the region. 
 
“The Jewish community in Philadelphia is continuing to evolve,” he added. “We’re dealing with all kinds of issues around assimilation, interfaith marriage. The idea that organizations like a synagogue and FELS can essentially check their egos at the door and actually try to bring their composite strengths together to build something that’s ultimately better for the community than they can do on their own, I think, is very compelling — and a very important message.”
 
Howard Cutler, co-counsel at TBI, said the synagogue looked to the recent merger of Hebrew school programs between Congregation Adath Jeshurun, Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel and Beth Sholom Congregation along Old York Road as precedent for their collaboration with FELS. 
 
Thus far, he said, the pairing has been effortless, calling their relationship beshert.
 
“There was a clear alignment in terms of our values and how we service early childhood,” he said. “We, as an organization, upon being introduced to the FELS organization, made a decision that given where we are in our life cycle, we wanted to be progressive in thinking about how we could most effectively deliver services to our community.”
 
Cutler expects membership to grow at TBI with FELS shepherding the program.
 
“We are very much looking forward to having increased energy, laughter, parents and children running the halls in the course of our day,” he said. 
 
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0737

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