On Manhattan's Upper West Side: A Great Lab of Jewish Learning


by S. Olidort - NEW YORK CITY

March 31, 2003

When Amy Weil began looking into preschools for her son Sasha, then two and a half years old, there were lots of options. Chabad, she says, simply wasn’t one of them. The stereotypes surrounding ultra-orthodoxy made her uneasy. But at the insistence of a friend Amy agreed to an interview with Pearl Stroh, Director of the Chabad Early Learning Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

“I figured it would be a practice interview,” says Amy, who was glad for the opportunity to experiment, before the real thing came along. Instead, this turned out to be the real thing, and three years down the line Sasha is a proud alumnus of the Chabad Early Learning Center.

Founded in the late 1980’s by Chabad of the Upper West Side by directors Rabbi Shlomo and Rivka Kugel, the Early Learning Center has become a magnet for Jewish preschoolers, attracting children from families across the Jewish spectrum, and encompassing a real cross-section of the Upper West Side Jewish community and its diversity of subcultures.

Famous for its eclectic mix of people, singles and seniors, couples with babies and with teenage kids, the Upper West Side is a hub of intellectual activity and creativity of every kind. Spanning the area from Columbus Circle at 59th street to 110th street, and bordered by Central Park West and Riverside Park, it is home to the city’s largest Jewish community and North America’s oldest synagogue, dating back to 1654.

Kosher pizza shops, cafes, and elegant restaurants practically line the streets here, as do the area’s dozens of synagogues and various Jewish schools. On the Upper West Side, where kippahs and headkerchiefs meet vintage jeans and well-worn Birkenstocks, Jewish observance exists in every form.

It all comes together in a wonderful mosaic at the Chabad Early Learning Center. “This isn’t just a school, but a community that draws everyone in, as diverse as we are, forming one big family,” says Anat Katz, whose daughter Liat is currently enrolled in the center. Here teacher and faculty involvement in the children’s day-to-day progress extends well beyond the hours spent in school. “Before I came here I had never heard of teachers coming to students’ homes, or inviting the children and their families to their own homes,” says Anat, “but that’s the norm here.”

Limor and Doron Gutkind, both raised in secular homes in Israel, hadn’t thought much about a Jewish education for their son, Danielli. The couple, now living on the Upper West Side, was unaffiliated with any of the area’s dozens of synagogues. But when Danielli approached his second birthday Limor found herself drawn to the Chabad Early Learning Center, and nearly three years later she feels it is “the best decision I could have made.”

In addition to its sunny, spacious facilities, Limor is thankful for the warmth and dedication of her son’s teachers, and the entire faculty here. “Everyone is welcoming and friendly, and the administration is always open to suggestions and willing to work with parents to perfect our children’s education,” she says. “Danielli is learning so much about his Jewish heritage,” says Limor. “Back in Israel even the most secular Jew knows what Shabbat is,” says Limor. “But in New York, just being Jewish isn’t enough, and the Early Learning Center has played a crucial role in building Danielli’s strong sense of Jewish identity.” An added plus for Limor, “the school community has become the perfect substitute for the family I left behind in Israel.”

What started out thirteen years ago, as a small project with seven children, has mushroomed into a fully licensed, professional preschool with two locations, over 140 children ages 18 months to five years old, and a staff of thirty for its ten classes.

Rabbi Kugel traces the school’s breakthrough back six years ago when the Chabad Early Learning Center was forced to relocate to new, roomier facilities, on 92nd St. “At the time, we had 40 children enrolled and suddenly the calls came pouring in,” says Rabbi Kugel. “We were feeling uncomfortable about having to turn so many children away.” By the end of their second year in the new facilities, the waiting list for the Chabad Early Learning Center exceeded 100, and it was obvious that something had to be done.

Chabad launched a capital campaign and two years ago a second building on 97th St. was leased, completely renovated, and opened in September of 2001. The final touches on the new facility, which houses the school’s kindergarten classes, were recently completed, and last week, parents and supporters participated in a dedication ceremony celebrating this milestone.

“It’s been a miraculous journey,” says Director Pearl Stroh, who is quick to point to the teachers as the cause of the school’s fantastic success. “Their round-the-clock commitment and dedication is the school’s most outstanding feature, and makes parents want to contribute as well to their children’s learning experience.”

Rabbi Kugel describes the Chabad Early Learning Center, as a “great lab of Jewish life that breaks barriers and forms friendships,” making it an incredible model of a Jewish learning environment. “Children develop a love of learning as their parents are invited to participate, and the entire family is embraced in the wonderful process of an early Jewish education.”

When children graduate from the Early Learning Center, Chabad helps parents choose the appropriate Jewish day school for their children. Sasha Chenko is currently enrolled at a traditional Jewish day school on the Upper West Side, and the Gutkinds are seriously considering sending Danielli to a Jewish day school, something they had never imagined doing.

“Sending Sasha to Chabad was like taking my child and putting him into another pair of loving arms every day,” says Amy.

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