G.K. and J.B., age 5, working on collage art on the first day of JCC Sonoma County's new preschool. (Photo/Courtesy)
G.K. and J.B., age 5, working on collage art on the first day of JCC Sonoma County's new preschool. (Photo/Courtesy)

New Jewish preschool opens in Sonoma County after another’s collapse

A leaky roof, rat feces and mass staff resignations in April led to the abrupt closure of Congregation Beth Ami’s Community Nursery School, leaving 20 children and their families in the lurch. At the time, there wasn’t another Jewish preschool in Santa Rosa.

Now there is.

On Sept. 11, the Jewish Community Center Sonoma County opened a new preschool in Santa Rosa designed to “inspire a lifelong love of learning through Jewish values.” Six children are enrolled so far, with several more starting later this fall, according to Melissa Sherman, the JCC’s managing director.

Before Beth Ami’s five-classroom facility rapidly lapsed into disrepair, JCC Sonoma County leaders had been in discussions to take it over, according to JCC board member Deborah Burg-Schnirman. The facility was licensed to accommodate 75 children, so there was room to spare.

“We said, ‘You guys have a site. We have the ability to run a school,’” said Burg-Schnirman, who’d run the preschool at Beth Ami in the mid-1980s. “That was the initial plan.”

However, that idea fell apart when the facility deteriorated over the winter amid historic downpours and Beth Ami closed, forcing the JCC to search elsewhere for a preschool site, she said.

Burg-Schnirman and fellow JCC board member Jacob Bockelmann, whose son Judah was attending Beth Ami’s preschool when it closed, found a refurbished three-bedroom home with a backyard and private courtyard. It previously had housed the Hidden Valley Community Preschool so was already up to California preschool licensing standards, JCC leaders said. The site is licensed to accommodate 20 children.

The backyard, with apple trees, a large willow tree, a sandbox and a planter box for a garden, creates a “very magical backyard space,” said Sarah Welton, the new preschool’s director.

RELATED: Mass resignations and health concerns led to Beth Ami preschool closure

The JCC Sonoma County Preschool is nondenominational and enrolls children from age 2 to 5. The building also houses the JCC’s office. Until now, the JCC Sonoma County hasn’t had a building and instead has hosted community events, camps and programs at locations across the county.

Jonathan Bender’s 3-year-old son, who previously attended Beth Ami’s preschool, is starting at the new JCC preschool in the coming weeks. Bender chose not to share his son’s name due to privacy considerations.

The Benders, who were devastated by the abrupt closure at Beth Ami, were able to enroll their son in a Montessori preschool initially. A number of other families did the same, and the Benders’ favorite Beth Ami teacher was hired to work there, too.

But the interfaith couple missed the Jewish values-based curriculum their son had taken a strong liking to, as well as the Reggio Emilia method of early childhood education, which is a student-centered approach that emphasizes self-directed learning. That’s why they visited the JCC preschool site with their son earlier this summer “in hopes it would capture the magic we missed,” Bender said.

Their 3-year-old “just loved it,” Bender said.

Burg-Schnirman expects that the preschool’s nondenominational approach to Judaism will be another draw.

“As a JCC, we’re not connected to any one synagogue. We can be connected everywhere,” Burg-Schnirman said. The plan is to invite leaders from other Jewish institutions and synagogues to celebrate Shabbat with the preschoolers and lead other programs. PJ Library has also signed on to co-sponsor the school’s Sukkot celebration.

“We’re connecting the families and our school with the broader Jewish community,” Burg-Schnirman said.

The dramatic play area at JCC Sonoma County's new preschool — with the table set for Shabbat, of course. (Photo/Courtesy)
The dramatic play area at JCC Sonoma County’s new preschool — with the table set for Shabbat, of course. (Photo/Courtesy)

To accommodate working parents, the 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. preschool offers extended care from 8 to 9 a.m. and from 1 to 5:30 p.m.

Elisette Weiss, Bockelmann’s wife and herself a Beth Ami preschool student back in the early 1990s, is excited about the new school for several reasons, including the flexible hours. Their 18-month-old son, Lev, is already on the waiting list. When he turns 2, he’ll be eligible to enroll.

“I’ve been spending a lot of time talking to other parents, both Jewish and non-Jewish, in various mom Facebook groups,” Weiss said. “There’s such a need for more care.”

The biggest draw for her, though, is the fact that it’s rooted in Jewish values. “They align with values we’re working on at home in all the things we do,” she said.

The JCC preschool, for example, will teach challah making, so kids can take home a mini challah on Fridays before Shabbat. Children will learn gardening in the context of Jewish holidays and the Jewish value of caring for the environment. There will be a mitzvah tree, so when preschoolers do something that shows compassion for one another or when children or families share a mitzvah that they’ve done, they can add a leaf to the tree to celebrate that, Burg-Schnirman said.

The tuition for the school year, which runs through in mid-June, ranges from $6,000 for 12 hours per week to $19,225 for 42.5 hours per week.

Meanwhile the JCC is already in the midst of a fund-raising campaign to expand its early childhood education offerings. The long-term goal is to open small preschools across the county. Currently, the only other Jewish preschool in Sonoma County is at B’nai Israel Jewish Center in Petaluma.

“It’s really enabling us to reach a new demographic, a new community,” Bockelmann said. “And it’s a whole new direction for the JCC of Sonoma County. It’s very exciting.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.