S.F.s sole Conservative preschool ready for first tots

E.J. Weiss, though only 2, can already single out Shabbat from the other days of the week. She knows it means lighting candles at home and going to synagogue.

When E.J. heads to Congregation Beth Sholom's new preschool this fall, the environment there will only reinforce what she's already learning about Judaism. That's exactly what her parents want.

"I'd like E.J. to get all those wonderful things you get at preschool — moral development, social skills, physical abilities — and do all of that within a Jewish context," said Zvi Weiss, E.J.'s father and a member of the preschool's founding board of directors.

When the Jewish Family Preschool opens Sept. 16, it will join a half-dozen other Jewish preschools in San Francisco. It will be the only one with a specifically Conservative philosophy, which has a traditional yet egalitarian focus.

That means that children will eat kosher food and observe the second days of holidays. Girls and boys will make paper kippot and wear them during snack time. They will play "pretend shul" in a pint-sized synagogue with its own ark and prayer shawls. They will listen to Jewish stories and help bake challah.

Basically, said preschool director Janet Harris, Judaism will be woven into the entire curriculum.

Children will also learn blessings in Hebrew and sing Hebrew songs. They will learn colors, numbers and animal names in both English and Hebrew.

Although Hebrew will play a large role in the preschool, the goal isn't to make children bilingual.

"It's to make Hebrew a part of their lives, so it's not a foreign thing," said Harris, who has been a Jewish educator for two decades.

Families don't have to follow Conservative practice themselves or become members of Beth Sholom to enroll in the preschool, Harris said. But they must be willing to get involved in their children's education by attending monthly family education workshops on topics such as Shabbat.

Parents also will receive packets each month containing their children's new Hebrew vocabulary words and audiotapes of songs to practice at home.

The preschool will start small and build up its enrollment and schedule over the next two years.

This year, it will enroll up to a dozen 2-year-olds for Tuesday, Thursday and Friday mornings through mid-June. The initial cost will be $270 per month. Scholarships are available.

There are still spaces open, said Harris, who can be reached at (415) 221-8736.

Harris eventually wants to enroll 60 children aged 2, 3 and 4. She also hopes to run the preschool five mornings per week and offer child-care in the afternoons.

Although Beth Sholom expects to raze and then rebuild its synagogue and social hall in the Inner Richmond District within the next several years, preschool board chair Linda Gallanter said those plans won't affect the preschool. It will be set up in the religious school building, which will only undergo renovation.

Beth Sholom has housed another preschool in the past. For several years, it rented space to one of the preschool sites of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. The JCC left Beth Sholom just over a year ago, apparently due to JCC reorganization and some confusion over Beth Sholom's plans for its own preschool.

Harris, who is also the Koret Synagogue Initiative program director at Beth Sholom, said the idea of starting a preschool meshes with the Koret Foundation's goal of bringing new families into the synagogue.

Gallanter, who is a member of Beth Sholom's board, said it also makes sense for a synagogue to provide for the needs of its current members.

Parents with young children, she noted, want to learn how to build a Jewish home, incorporate Jewish values into their children's lives and get involved in Jewish institutions.

Some families have a better start on that than others.

Weiss, for example, was an assistant director at the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles before his family moved to San Francisco in January.

He and his wife, Debra, already know they want E.J. — short for Elisabeth Jordan — to learn about Chanukah and Passover, rather than Christmas and Easter, in preschool. They expect to send her to a Jewish day school, and they don't want her to view Judaism or synagogue as separate from the rest of her life.

"The earlier you start, the more ingrained it is in you," E.J.'s father said. "It's important that her children be Jewish too. I think you do that by making your own child Jewish."