Rainbow Fading at Temple Beth El

Rainbow Fading at Temple Beth El

School is seeking new space within a 3- or 4-mile radius.

A rainbow's touch point with the earth is usually hard to define. That may also apply to the future of Keshet Child Development Center, which has been housed in Alexandria's Temple Beth El for nearly three decades. It now must vacate by July 1.

Keshet, which means "rainbow" in Hebrew, is a preschool for children 2 to 5 that offers "a learning environment that nurtures a love for, and an understanding of Jewish heritage, traditions and values," according to its director Ilisa St. Pierre.

"Just before the holidays we were told that our lease would not be renewed," she said.

That decision was made by the Temple's Board of Directors at their Dec. 21 meeting. "The Beth El Board of Directors (by a 21-3 vote) agreed to create an Early Childhood Extended Day Care Program in partnership with the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia (JCC)," according to John Jankowski, Board president, in his recent newsletter.

"The proposed preschool will be located at Beth El and is expected to begin operations this coming fall. Beth El volunteers and staff are currently working out the details of the joint program in cooperation with the JCC leadership," he explained to readers.

"This decision was made because an opportunity arose for Beth El to partner with JCC for a combined day care and preschool. It was a great opportunity to expand into both a day-care and pre-school that we couldn't turn down," Jankowski said in an interview.

That was buttressed by Beth El Rabbi Brett Isserow. "We have been considering a full day care as well as pre-school at Beth El for some time. When we spoke with JCC it seemed an incredible opportunity for us," Isserow said.

"This also enables us (Beth El Temple) to be part of the school instead of just a rentor. They (Keshet) have maintained their independence and have viewed us primarily as the landlord. Neither side really put forth an effort to change that dynamic," he said.

THAT ANALYSIS was questioned by several Keshet parents. "Although I'm really excited about the change, the relationship between the

school and the Temple has really been going down hill for some

time," said parent Michael Klein.

"I think it's time for Keshet to move on regardless. The Temple Board of Directors is supposed to have a liaison with the school yet no one has ever made any contact," he said.

"The Rabbi has been very distant. Ilisa has asked him to come and visit and he has always been busy. So she stopped asking then he got mad that he wasn't asked to visit. Maybe he was busy every time and she shouldn't have stopped asking," Klein said.

"There was a huge rent increase. The Temple thinks the school is a money maker and it is not. It seems like the Board thinks all the parents are wealthy and we can afford the increases. That is not so," he said.

"Ilesa is an excellent administrator and has been successful in turning the school around. The Board also seems to think the school should be run as a business. We think the main objective is service to the parents and their children. The object is not to loose money but it is also not to make money. They think that is what can be done. Good luck," said Klein.

HIS ASSESSMENT OF the situation was buttressed by two other parents -- Claire Sassin and Justine Springberg. "I have every intention of staying with the school. It's a great school. I have a three and a half year old daughter and she has flourished there," said Sassin.

"I wish the move didn't have to happen. If they have to move 10 miles I doubt that I'll be able to stay with them," she said.

"My daughter is in her second year at the school and it's been great for both of us. Both the teachers and the environment are terrific. It's not a cookie cutter school. They make sure each student's individual likes and needs are incorporated into the curriculum," Sassin said.

"I'm devoted to the school. I'm hoping that something will come through so we can move. I've been involved with Keshet since 2002. I've had both my children enrolled and I now teach in the "Mommy & Me" program for children under age two," Springberg said.

"It's not just a school to us. We've made a lot of life-long friends. I like the fact that Keshet was more than 25 years old and was a known quantity. I like the consistency of the school and the fact that the administrator is very professional," she said.

"It has helped our children to really appreciate their Jewish heritage and identity. When I was a little girl that didn't matter to me at the age of my daughter. But, she is so proud of it she has brought that knowledge to her classmates in public school where she

is now enrolled. That is because of Keshet," Springberg said.

A resident of Arlington, Springberg chose to take her children to Beth El's Keshet because of its substance not because of its location. "I am a teacher in the public schools and I know educational value when I see it," she said.

"IT'S UNFORTUNATE that after more than a quarter century the Temple has decided to just throw us out. Neither the JCC nor the Temple ever asked us if we wanted to partner with them. They just decided they didn't want us there anymore," said St.Pierre.

"They think opening their own day care center will be a profit center for them. That's not how we operate anyway -- all our money goes back into the school. We don't make a profit at all, and I guess that doesn't fit the Temple's business model," she said.

Keshet occupies approximately 3500 square feet of space on two levels at the rear of Temple Beth El at 3830 Seminary Road in Alexandria. They employ 12 staff -- 10 teachers plus the director and an administrative staff.

There are 55 pre-schoolers enrolled in the regular program plus an additional seven in the "Mommy and Me" program for toddlers. They operate from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday. Tuition varies from $359 to $843 depending on number of days. Pre-Kindergarten is $955 for Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Beth El member rates range from $341 to $801 for regular students and $908 for Pre-K.

"We have always offered discount tuition to Beth El members. It really came down to the fact that they (Beth El) wanted control over curriculum, educational methods and school finances," St. Pierre said.

"Our parents are really loyal and committed to our program. They are not happy with the Temple for doing this. This is much more than a school. It is a whole community," she said. "We hope to find a new home within a three to four mile radius of where we are for the convenience of our parents."

Although Keshet emphasizes Jewish heritage in its educational approach it is open to students of all denominations, according to St. Pierre. "The timing of this is most unfortunate because we are in the registration period for next year," she explained.

St.Pierre and parents were invited to the Beth El Board meeting at which the vote occurred but were not allowed to speak, according to St. Pierre. "It seemed there was a certain faction in the Temple for this change," she said.

"Our mission here at Keshet has always been to educate children to become part of the total community. We don't make a penny profit.

It's very important that we keep going. They (the Temple) want something of their own to make a profit," St. Pierre said.

"We emphasize learning through play. We are a developmental school. We have a Jewish curriculum but it is not academically oriented," she explained.

"Our goal is to increase our children's awareness of the world in which they live through a program that encourages social, emotional, educational and physical development. Our methods of teaching are based on the philosophy of Piaget - a hands-on approach that takes the individual child's learning, pace and style into consideration at all times. Judaism and its customs and traditions are woven into our broad educational program," St. Pierre wrote in her Director's Message at the beginning of the school's Parent Handbook.

"This exciting development will serve multiple purposes that are in the interests of Beth El, the JCC, and the area's wide Jewish community. First and most importantly, it will allow Beth El to house a preschool that we can call our own, will be available with tuition discounts to Beth El members, and will fully involve our clergy in Jewish life-cycle and holiday related programming. The preschool can serve as a gateway to full Beth El membership ...," Jankowski wrote in his newsletter explaining the schism.