About 85 educators of preschoolers from synagogues, day schools, and Jewish community centers came together Nov. 3 to gather with colleagues, share ideas, and learn innovative teaching methods.
The annual Jewish Early Childhood Educators’ Conference, held at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, featured workshops on using music and dance in the classroom, methods of imparting Jewish values through popular books, the different learning styles of boys and girls, speech and language development in preschoolers, and how to manage their own stress to prevent burnout.
Keynote speaker Rick Ellis — a renowned expert in early childhood and elementary education and an adjunct education professor at Rider University — discussed the power and necessity of play in the lives of young children.
Although sponsored by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey — which covers Monmouth and Middlesex counties — and its early childhood directors’ group, the conference drew educators from throughout central and northern Jersey.
The former Jewish Federation of Monmouth County ran the conference the last two years, inviting educators from the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County region to participate. The two federations merged last Jan. 1.
But, said event chair Robin Wander of Bradley Beach, the last two conferences produced so much positive feedback, the organizing committee decided to open this year’s gathering to early childhood Jewish educators from anywhere in the state.
“We found that this really gives our teachers and school directors an opportunity to sit back and really take in additional knowledge and ideas to bring back to their schools,” said Wander, an early education consultant and a federation board member.
Directors’ group chair Inna Shepard, who serves as early childhood director at the Gan Yeladeem Learning Center at Anshe Emeth, said the group meets monthly to demonstrate ways to incorporate innovative techniques and programs into the classroom.
“When we invest in teachers we invest in children and the family, which are our future,” said Laura Safran, federation director of community impact, told the gathering. “Every one of you is a piece of that. I feel blessed my own children are learning from you — and I thank you.”
Many of those attending agreed with that assessment as they engaged with colleagues over lunch or interacted in workshops.
“I’m always interested in learning new things, so I wanted to see what I can bring back to our neck of the woods,” said Randi Cohen, director of the Philip J. Solondz Preschool at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston. “I’ve already attended the music workshop and have been finding there is a lot of passion among all of us to connect through music and other educational methods.”
At the gathering, said Sharon Grossman, an educator in the Yad B’Yad program for children 18-30 months at the Jewish Center in Princeton, she had learned many creative techniques to try out in her classroom. “It’s always nice to come to a conference where you are invigorated with new ideas,” she said. “It’s especially good for me because I’m new to the area and it’s nice to meet colleagues from all around New Jersey.”
Batsheva Moully, a teacher at Yeshivat Netivot Montessori in East Brunswick, “found the conference “a really great resource for us as teachers to regroup and make sure our students are on the right track and getting the resources they might need.”
“It’s always good to see how the spectrum of literacy unfolds, what points of concern others are finding, and how they are letting children naturally grow into learning at their own pace,” she said.
In a workshop conducted by Debbie Levenberg, the award-winning early childhood educator at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains showed participants how her students had created their own Jewish-themed storybooks based on classic children’s stories. Levenberg said the books, with such whimsical names as Let Pidgeon Celebrate Shabbat or Passover A-Z, stimulate a child’s creativity and connection to Judaism.
One of the books she brought to the workshop, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, became If You Give a Mouse a Halla, in which the rodent at the center of the story celebrates Jewish holidays, including having a picnic on Lag B’ Omer and asking for atonement on Yom Kippur for stealing the class’s cheese.
Later, teachers browsed through stacks of children’s books, coming up with their own ideas for using them as a springboard for teaching such Jewish values as kindness to animals or taking care of one’s body.
Central JCC associate executive director Robin Brous, also executive director of its early childhood services, led two workshops — one to guide directors on finding and engaging prospective families for their schools, the other on how to handle difficult discussions with parents or guardians of problem children. However, she said, she also was a participant in other workshops that served to further her pedagogical skills.
“It’s been a great opportunity to meet another network of directors and learn together,” said Brous.