a woman kneels next to a child on a playground
Carolyn Mulcahy, the new preschool director at Congregation Sherith Israel, and a child try out some of the nature-based activities that will be featured at the synagogues's new preschool, opening this fall.

At Sherith Israel’s new preschool, the kids will stay outside 

Congregation Sherith Israel will open a new preschool this fall that will be held largely outdoors, joining a growing Bay Area trend of turning nature into a classroom for young students.

The decision to open a congregational preschool was a long time in the works, said Gordon Gladstone, executive director of the San Francisco synagogue. Sherith Israel previously had been home to a Marin Day School preschool for more than 30 years, but that program moved to its own campus in 2020.

One of the advantages of Sherith Israel operating its own preschool is giving young families an introduction to the synagogue community, Gladstone said. “We [wanted] something that truly operated as an entry point into congregational life,” he said.

The inspiration for adopting a nature-based approach came from the preschool’s newly hired director, Carolyn Mulcahy.

Nature-based education comes from the Dutch concept of “forest schools” and was popularized in the United States in the 1980s, Mulcahy said. The movement posits that early childhood learning happens best in the natural world and fosters a connection for children with the earth. Mulcahy has worked in nature-based preschools for more than 15 years, most recently at the Mountain School in Corte Madera.

“[There’s] a lot of emphasis on having a deep connection with nature and giving kids sort of a non-commercial experience,” Mulcahy said.

Looking up at the dome of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. (Photo/From file)
Looking up at the dome of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. (Photo/From file)

The tenets of Judaism mesh well with this philosophy, as the Torah often mentions Jews being keepers of the earth, she said.

A typical day at the preschool will focus on outdoor enrichment and play at one of the many neighborhood parks in or near Pacific Heights. Newly renovated space in Sherith’s building on California Street will serve as home base, where children will be dropped off and picked up, have nap time and retreat to in times of extreme weather. In the classroom, students will learn about composting and how to care for classroom pets, and on Fridays they will bake challah to celebrate Shabbat.

The school will serve children ages 2 to 5 from all faith backgrounds. There will be three classrooms and space for up to 40 students total, Gladstone said, with at least four teachers per group. Morning, afternoon or all-day programs will be offered. The preschool’s name and pricing have not yet been determined.

Nature-based education has become more popular in recent years, particularly as the Covid-19 pandemic moved many school activities outside. At Congregation Emanu-El’s “forest preschool,” students walk to the Presidio as part of their day, while the Berkeley-based Wilderness Torah offers outdoor Sunday school and other youth programs. Urban Adamah in Berkeley also runs summer camps and year-round family and youth events. Mulcahy said she is tailoring the program to urban children, using parks in the middle of the city.

For those families who are initially drawn to Sherith Israel by the preschool program, Gladstone feels confident that they will stay in synagogue life long after their child graduates.

“What I would say to potential parents is, yes, there are a lot of good preschools out there,” Gladstone said. “But when you join a community, and that community will outlast your child’s preschool experience, you’re creating deeper roots and deeper connections.”

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene was a staff writer at J. from 2022-2023.