Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

The Rebbe’s Teachings

As Chabad opens preschools across the country, secular parents try to reconcile the movement with the classroom

Print Email
(Courtesy Kiddie Korner)

The reception area in downtown Manhattan’s Preschool of the Arts is a cheerful, modern space: dozens of self-portraits and paintings by children named Jem and Oliver and Esme crowd the walls. A small sign invites visitors to stop by the art gallery to see “action paintings created in the style of Jackson Pollock” and hangs next to an iconic photograph of the mid-century artist, cigarette dangling from mouth, and a shot of a toddler dripping paint on her own canvas.

A tall narrow bookshelf to the left of the reception desk doesn’t garner much attention. Its shelves are divided into sections like child-rearing (two copies of the No Cry Sleep Solution as well as several baby sign-language books) and art (Crafts and La Vie En Rose). It’s only the titles in the adult literature section that seem incongruous: Bringing Heaven to Earth, Opening the Tanya, and My Spiritual Journey.

Manhattan Preschool of the Arts, which opened in 2000, is run under the auspices of Chabad Lubavitch, the ultra-Orthodox movement, and is part of a fast-growing network of Chabad schools nationwide catering to the young children of Jewish families across the denominational spectrum. The schools might differ in educational focus—some, like Preschool of the Arts, consider themselves inspired by Reggio Emilia, the Italian approach that emphasizes physical environment and community, while others place greater weight on Montessori ideals—but they all share the same, overarching philosophy: imbue their charges with a love for the Jewish religion. “We’re trying to spread the warmth of Judaism,” says Shternie Raskin, the director of Kiddie Korner, a Brooklyn Heights preschool that opened in 1991. “Not the laws, though that’s happening too, but the warmth, the fun part of Judaism. And so much of it is fun!”

There’s another goal too, which Chabad is quite up-front about, although you won’t see it printed on admission brochures: reaching out to the parents of the children. “It’s all about the relationships, the personal relationships,” says Devora Krasnianski, coordinator for the Chabad Early Childhood Education network. “It’s not just the child who comes to the school. It’s really connecting with the whole family.” Rabbi Nochem Kaplan, national director of Chabad’s education arm, puts it more directly. “Chabad preschools are created to serve not only as institutions of early childhood learning,” he wrote several years ago, “but as vehicles to reach out to the families of the children who attend.”

There are 157 preschools now affiliated with Chabad nationwide, up from 109 in 2005. These numbers don’t tell the whole story, though. Manhattan Preschool of the Arts was flooded with applications last year—160, of which they accepted 95. In ever-gentrifying Brooklyn, where strollers clog the sidewalks, the Park Slope-based Chai Tots, founded in 1987, has recently opened two new outposts—a Prospect Heights location in 2007 and another one in Windsor Terrace last fall—only to find that demand still exceeds space. Kiddie Korner in Brooklyn Heights just completed renovations on a new space and now offers, in addition to preschool, daycare for up to 50 kids.

And while more than 25 percent of the Chabad preschools can be found in New York State (home, of course, to 770 Eastern Parkway, Chabad’s world headquarters in Brooklyn), the press to educate the young and Jewish stretches to the far reaches of the country. Over the past decade, Chabad-run early childhood education centers have opened in Alabama, Arkansas, New Mexico, and Hawaii. California has 26 preschools. Even Reno, Nevada, not exactly a hotspot for young Jewish families, saw the inauguration this past May of a new 13,500-square-foot Chabad center to house a preschool and a day school, which had previously resided in a converted carport.

“Listen, a child goes with his mom to the mall on December 15 and what does he see? Santa Claus and Christmas all over the place. Where’s Hanukkah?” Kaplan, the Chabad education chief, asks me. “Early childhood Jewish education leaves an indelible impression on the child. We need that. It’s essential for an assimilating community.”

For the better half of the past decade, Kaplan has been an agitator for Chabad preschool expansion. In 2004, he canvassed 23 Chabad communities, from Burlington, Vermont, to Bakersfield, California, to determine their level of interest in starting such schools. “Chabad touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews every day of every year,” Kaplan wrote in his resulting report. “Chabad is uniquely positioned to make a serious impact on the future of Jewish preschool education.”

Uniquely positioned how? In a word: outreach. The Chabad Lubavitch movement is virtually synonymous with its outreach efforts, a campaign that was kicked off in the wake of World War II’s devastation. (In 1950, the first Lubavitcher couple was sent abroad, to Morocco from Brooklyn, to spread the teachings of the rebbe.) Today, these efforts are as ubiquitous as they are varied: Mitzvah tanks roaming city streets blaring music; dark-suited young men and women in long skirts who approach strangers, asking, “You Jewish?”; Shabbat services at Burning Man; raucous, alcohol-soaked Purim celebrations on college campuses. Chabad is unusual, to say the least: a strictly religious group that directs its activities to the non-religious.

“People say, ‘oh, I’m Reform, I’m Conservative.’ I don’t care about that,” says Shternie Raskin of Kiddie Korner. “I say, ‘You’re a Jew? You’re Jewish!’”

Their non-judgmental, enthusiastic, religiously fervent approach can inspire skittishness and even ire in some secular Jews. But it’s these same qualities, their unabashed love for and pride in the Torah and its teachings, that makes their preschools some of the more successful and cutting-edge educational centers around.

***

Emerging in mid-18th century Poland, Chabad Lubavitch grew out of the general Hasidic movement. Its adherents embrace the concept of ahavat Yisrael, “love of all Jews,” regardless of a person’s level of observance. “When a Jew sins, the entire Jewish body is affected,” writes Sue Fishkoff in her comprehensive account of Chabad, The Rebbe’s Army. “When a Jew does a mitzvah, obeying even one of God’s commandments, the merit is enjoyed by all.”

This spiritual belief fuels all of Chabad’s outreach efforts, marking them with a palpable, physical urgency. “A hasid is he who puts his personal affairs aside and goes around lighting up the souls of Jews with the light of Torah and mitzvoth,” said the rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who led Chabad from 1951 until his death in 1994 (and who some Lubavitchers hold is the messiah). “There must be someone who disregards personal comforts and conveniences and goes out to put a light to these lamps.”

Those charged with the task of lamp-lighting professionally are emissaries, or shlichim, young married couples who move to places with little or no Orthodox presence—far-flung locales, like Thailand and Mumbai, or the more familiar Pasadena or Park Slope of 20 years ago—to set up independently run and funded Chabad Houses, of which there are now more than 3,000 worldwide. The intention is that they stay on the job for life. “The shaliach’s success depends on his own entrepreneurial talents,” says Jonathan Sarna, the American Jewish historian. “It’s a 24-7 job.” Their goal is to offer the myriad services that one needs to have a “full Jewish community,” as one Chabadnik puts it, and that includes, of course, Jewish schools.

The parents of young children are often at a crossroads (a harried, sleep-deprived crossroads, but a crossroads nevertheless), facing a time in their lives when they realize that the decisions they make—from the quotidian to the spiritual—are not simply for two adults but for an entire family. “The family is generally trying to figure out their religious ideals,” says Krasnianski, Chabad’s early-childhood coordinator. “They could have been whatever they wanted to be as singles, or young adults, or even couples. But now is a key time.”

Chabad, with the establishment of their preschools, is trying to capitalize on this particular moment, but the families who send their children to the schools have their own goals in mind. “I kind of dismissed the school at first,” says Alexa de los Reyes, about her decision to send her son to Brooklyn’s Chai Tots. “Very religious Jews make me uncomfortable. And, you know, it’s Chabad; they’re proselytizers. I’ve had the experience of being approached by Chabad people on the street, which is definitely off-putting, but this isn’t like that at all. It’s very welcoming and inclusive, no pressure.” Plus, in the competitive New York preschool market, there’s another important factor, admits de los Reyes: “The fact that there was space was the prime thing.”

***

I had many preconceptions as to what a Chabad-run school would be like, but an emphasis on paint colors wasn’t one of them. Yet when I arrived at Manhattan Preschool of the Arts, Sarah Rotenstreich, the smooth-talking, 34-year-old director of the school brings up the neutral base color for the walls immediately, pointing out that it’s a very soothing shade. “Environment is like a third teacher here,” she says as she walks me through the school’s invitingly open space, which boasts cobblestone flooring, cedar-planked walls, and an internal courtyard, or piazza, in Reggio-speak. It looks closer to something out of a Norman Rockwell scene or Little House on the Prairie than any preschool I’ve seen before.

In her glass-enclosed, piazza-facing office, Rotenstreich speaks about Reggio philosophy and “reaching the whole child,” how the curriculum is integrated with Judaism (“science and math can be Jewish”) and about the slew of family activities the school offers—from large holiday parties to parenting workshops and challah-baking at her home. The school even operates a small, upscale kosher cafe next door, called Books and Bagels, open to the public, to encourage mingling. “Community is crucial to what we do,” says Rotenstreich, who grew up in West Bloomfield, Michigan, the daughter of shlichim.

While not every school boasts as polished a space (Park Slope’s Chai Tots is housed in a basement, Kiddie Korner in a well-worn Brooklyn Heights brownstone), Chabad-affiliated preschools are, by most accounts, effectively run, successful centers of education. They are licensed by the state as well as accredited by Chabad. The three New York City preschools I visited all seemed lovely—the teachers warm and attentive, the children happily engaged at the water table, in the dress-up area, running around the playground. They looked, on the surface, a lot like my own daughter’s secular preschool, albeit with more Hebrew.

Mark Rosen, a Brandeis sociologist who has studied outreach to young Jewish families, says when Chabad “takes on early childhood, they take it very seriously. They’re extremely savvy about the religious piece. Religion is not the major focus of what they do—the focus is on the education.”

“I think there’s a real push for professionalism” at Chabad schools, says Pearl Beck, a social psychologist who conducted an oft-cited study of non-Orthodox Jewish preschools in 2002. “They might have been winging it years ago, but not anymore.”

Whatever their trepidation about the religious component, parents are well-aware of the professionalism. “At first, I was in shock,” says a recent Israeli transplant to Brooklyn who sends her son to Chai Tots. “I came home and said to my husband, ‘We can’t do this. We can’t do the tzitzit and kiss the Torah and the talk of Hashem. It’s so strange for us.” But her son remained. Why? “The teachers are good, they’re friendly,” she says. “They listen. They want to know the kids, the whole family. My son went to three different schools in Israel and this is the best.”

The schools receive professional support, such as curriculum assistance, from Chabad’s national offices, but they’re on their own financially, and 770 doesn’t dictate an individual school’s approach. “Every school makes its own decisions,” says Krasnianski, the early-childhood coordinator. “We don’t have a mandate from up top.”

There are certain commonalities, however. “All learning is sensory-based, and stems from a Judaic experience,” says Kaplan, the national education official. “So, if we’re talking about vegetation and green life, we’ll start with a Jewish bible story.” Most schools ask their young students to bring in daily a “mitzvah note,” detailing a good deed. And most also require students to offer a penny for charity. “We’re teaching your child to be a mensch, a good person,” Kiddie Korner’s Shternie Raskin says. “Everything should be a joy,” says Sarah Hecht, the director of Chai Tots. “Nothing should be ‘you have to do it.’” She makes a face. “That’s so old-school.”

The handful of preschool directors I spoke with said they don’t require children to wear tzitzit or yarmulkes, but keep them on hand if the child requests. (Judging from the number of parents who brought it up, many children do request. And a parent handbook from Toronto’s Chabad preschool, part of the larger packet Kaplan sends to new schools, says, “boys are required to wear kippot to school every day.”)

The open-mindedness that characterizes Chabad’s activities in general is certainly evident at the schools. The directors I spoke with said they’ll admit any child whose family is interested in a Jewish education. “Look, I don’t like labeling. We have everyone; we have families with two mommies, we have everybody,” says Chai Tots’ Hecht. “We have families that, halachically, are they Jewish? No—the father is Jewish but the mom is not—but they want it, they want the Jewish school.”

Most draw the line at non-Jews. Shternie Raskin is a notable exception. She says there are about four or five non-Jews in each of her fifteen-member classes. In the early years of Kiddie Korner, which opened in 1991, she took non-Jews simply to fill up the school, but now, she says, it’s a different story. “So many non-Jews are interested. The truth is, kids are kids. I don’t turn them away.”

(Not every school is accepting. I spoke with one mother who told me that her son had been verbally accepted to the Chabad preschool on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 2006, only to find that acceptance rescinded when the school learned she had been converted to Judaism by Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine and a rabbi of Renewal Judaism. “They told me I would have to reconvert in order for my son to be accepted,” Lili Schab says. “It was horrible.” The school did not respond to requests for comment.)

Another selling point seems to be cost. A number of people I spoke with said that Chabad is generally able to underprice. Brandeis’s Sarna points out that the position of director at most Chabad preschools is usually filled by the rabbi’s wife, who is generally not drawing a salary. “That money is going to a general fund of the Chabad House,” he says. In the handful of Chabad preschools that I canvassed the pricing structure was comparable to other preschools, secular and religious, with one notable exception: Chai Tots is significantly cheaper. (It charges $5,500 for three half days a week, for example, while a nearby preschool affiliated with a Conservative synagogue charges $7,600 for the same time.) A flexible range of hours offered and ages of children served—many Chabad preschools have a daycare component for babies—also makes these programs especially appealing to working parents.

But finances and availability only tell part of the story. “The shaliach is working 24-7,” Sarna says. “They love it; they’re doing the rebbe’s will. If you thought your work might bring on the messiah, you might work that much harder too.”

***

“I think parents don’t realize that this is a total community,” says Kiddie Korner’s ebullient Raskin. “They don’t understand, I teach your kid, they become my kid. We invite people over for Shabbos. They come to my house, they see it all. It changes things.” It certainly changed things for Jessica Kaye, whose daughter, Sage, was in preschool at Kiddie Korner. “I look at my daughter; she’s learning so much stuff, and I think, ‘Maybe I should do this at home,’” she says. “Or, ‘my Hebrew should be as good as hers.’” Kaye says she has helped out with school holiday celebrations. “Shternie and the rabbi so welcoming. It’s so cool to participate, even if I don’t know all of the blessings.” She explains that she grew up in central Pennsylvania, where “the KKK marched through my town. I heard Jewish slurs. It’s nice to see Sage be really free with knowing who she is.”

Anne Estes, who grew up Quaker and describes her husband as a “lapsed Episcopalian” is also a big Kiddie Korner supporter. Her son went to the school for four years; her young daughter attends it now. “It’s been wonderful, spiritual, and supportive,” she says of the school, and not just of her children. When she lost her job last year, “Shternie and the rabbi were there for me, as a friend,” Estes says. “They’ve been there for us during some very painful times.”

I ask if her son ever felt odd, as a non-Jew at a Jewish school. No, she says. “We were worried that he would feel like he didn’t belong. But he never felt that way.” Then she stops. “Except for the time he asked about—what’s it called, what you do on Friday night?” Shabbat? “Yes,” she says. She goes on to explain that her son got upset because his friends celebrated Shabbat, and he didn’t. “So I went to Mrs. Plotkin”—Shternie’s mother, who works in the school office—“and I said, ‘Would it be okay if I did something?’ I didn’t want to be disrespectful. She said, ‘It’s a family ritual, you can make it a family ritual.’ So I made an ecumenical Friday night celebration; we sliced the bread, I said a prayer over the candles. We still do it sometimes.”

But for other families, even those who are happy with the school, the religious component can remain a thorny issue, leading to a disconnect between what a child learns in the classroom and what she practices at home. Alexa de los Reyes, whose son attended Chai Tots and who is married to a non-Jew, says, “my husband says, ‘Let’s say the blessings; let’s have the Shabbat.’ For him, it’s much easier to adopt it as a family tradition. It’s much more complicated for me.”

Isaac Josephson, who also says that his family’s Chai Tots experience hasn’t changed their level of observance, is mirthful about the disconnect. “Hashem has entered his daily lexicon,” he says about his son. Josephson has dubbed these conversations “The Hashem Wars.” “When a toy breaks, he’ll ask Hashem to fix his toy. And I’ll say, ‘Well, if we believed in Hashem….’” Josephson, who has nothing but good things to say about Chai Tots and Chabad in general (“I think they’re astoundingly good at what they do,” he says, “consummate marketers”) doesn’t hesitate when I ask where his son will be attending kindergarten. “Public school, baby,” he says with a laugh.

When I ask the Israeli mother (who requested that her name not be used for fear of offending Chai Tots) if her son’s attendance at the school had changed the way they did things at home, she says, “absolutely not. Not at all. I like the challah they make on Fridays, but that’s it.” She, too, laughs, noting that she wants her son to attend kindergarten at the local public school. “I don’t want problems with the Hashem stuff.”

The issues are not limited to Hashem, of course. It’s a worldview, one in which the female teachers (and they are all women, as they are at the vast majority of preschools) are regularly married by the time they are 22, where having 10 children isn’t all that unusual, and black, as the song the children sing about colors attests, “is the color of Daddy’s hat.”

Consider this, from the teacher’s manual of Chabad’s Upper West Side preschool: “topics relating to the age of the earth and man, various geological stages … and any other ideas which may be dichotomous with Jewish theology are not to be discussed in the classroom without the express permission and guidance from the Director.”

Pearl Beck, the social psychologist, says: “These modern, educated, secular Jews who send their kids to Chabad preschools, and eat at Chabad houses—I’m not sure they know that it has a specific ideology, with ideas about Zionism, for example. The parents might like the product, but they don’t regard it as an ideology.”

Others are more damning about Chabad. David Berger, a Jewish historian who wrote a highly critical book about Lubavitch messianism, says, “I’m not particularly worried about these preschools—I assume the vast majority of their teachers are not teaching about the moshiach—but I see Chabad Lubavitch as espousing ideas that have the potential to undermine Judaism. So anything that might contribute to the success of the movement troubles me.”

One Brooklyn mother I spoke with who didn’t want to be identified considers herself an observant Jew and a staunch supporter of Jewish education. Last year, while shopping around for preschools, she looked at Chai Tots, despite the fact that she’s not a fan of Chabad. “What really bothers me is the non-egalitarianism,” she says. “It drives me nuts. A friend of mine whose kids are there told me about a Friday night event they went to where all the kids made kippot for the dads and bracelets for the moms. I found that horrifying.”

Still, she says, it didn’t stop her from applying. “In principle, the fact that it’s a Chabad school is a problem, but when you go into the school, the religious issue ceases to be the issue and becomes just one consideration.”

***

The focus on family and community, so intrinsic to Chabad, isn’t necessarily as emphasized at other Jewish preschools. Mark Rosen, the sociologist who studies outreach, explains that the early childhood centers run by synagogues or JCCs adhere to an entirely different model, one often driven by financial considerations. “In synagogues in particular, preschools are seen as cash cows,” Rosen says. “If they weren’t profit centers, they wouldn’t exist. It’s not that they’re not interested in outreach, it’s just that the business consideration must come first. I would suspect that if a Chabad preschool wasn’t profitable, they’d run it anyway. They’re not there to make money; they’re there to bring souls closer to Hashem.”

In 2002, Pearl Beck, the social psychologist, conducted a study that offers evidence of Rosen’s point. She surveyed 90 families in three different cities—Denver, Chicago, and Baltimore—who had a child enrolled in a Jewish preschool affiliated with a Conservative or Reform synagogue, or a JCC. The resulting study, “Jewish Preschools as Gateways to Jewish Life,” found that for all the Jewish organizational world’s talk about reaching unaffiliated Jews, little attention was being paid to a population already in the system, “namely families whose children are enrolled in over a thousand Jewish preschools throughout the country,” she wrote.

Beck found that most of these schools “didn’t have highly articulated Jewish educational goals,” and that the Jewish curriculum was often “ad-hoc and limited.” Interactions between children and the rabbi or cantor at these schools “were the exception rather than the rule.” Despite these findings, “parents expressed overwhelmingly positive sentiments about their child’s Jewish preschool experience. Parents for whom the ‘Jewish factor’ was not a major reason for enrollment expressed surprise at how much they liked Jewish component.” Beck also found that nearly 70 percent of the families said they were doing something different in terms of their Jewish observance as a result of their child’s education.

Beck might not have considered any Chabad-affiliated preschools, but Chabad was considering her work. Rabbi Kaplan, the head of Chabad’s education arm, read Beck’s 2002 study, and several years later, used the findings to support his own argument that Chabad was well-positioned to fill the gap. “A comprehensive study by Pearl Beck … concluded that Jewish preschools present significant, yet underutilized opportunities for strengthening families’ Jewish affiliation and enhancing their Jewish identities,” he wrote.

Beck, who was surprised to learn that Chabad had cited her study, said that there had been a “surge of programmatic” changes at Jewish early childhood centers since she had released her study. “I talked about the lack of Jewish curriculum, and that’s not true anymore,” she says. Still, she sees the specific appeal of Chabad. She views their schools as “very cutting edge, a barometer of things to come. Jewish ideology and its underpinnings are seamlessly integrated into the school experience.”

One potential marker of a Jewish preschool’s success could be the rate of its graduates’ enrollment in Jewish day schools. Milwaukee’s well-regarded Jewish Beginnings is one of the oldest Chabad-run preschools in the country. (It opened in 1973.) Its website proclaims: “90% of our students come from non-Orthodox homes. 87% of Jewish Beginnings graduates go on to Jewish Day school education.”

None of the New York City Chabad preschool directors I met with were interested in claiming day school enrollment as their mission. (Talk about scaring secular prospective families.) “My goal is not for them to go on to Jewish day school,” says Sarah Rotenstreich, of Preschool of the Arts. “That’s a wonderful, positive outcome, but that’s not my goal.” And yet when I ask her about the number of children going on to a Jewish day school this year, she looks it up and realizes it’s 50 percent, eight out of 16. “That’s so exciting. It’s our highest percentage yet,” she says. “It’s usually around 20 or 30 percent, if I’m lucky.”

Chai Tots’ Sarah Hecht,who gave birth to her 13th child this spring, told me that of the 12 kids from last year’s graduating class, five were going on to day school. (“It could be better,” she says of the percentage with a laugh, “but it’s not bad.”) She too says her goal is not day school, but for kids to leave loving and having pride in their Jewish heritage. “Every Friday, every child here makes a homemade challah,” she says. “Now it doesn’t make a difference to me if they go home and make a little Friday night Shabbat celebration with the challah, or, if they say, ‘You know, this bread makes the best French toast!’ It doesn’t matter. They’ve had the experience.”

It’s an appealing statement, consummately Chabad in its verve and open-mindednesss, but one which could seem slightly disingenuous. (Does it truly not matter if no one ever says a blessing?) On the other hand, Chabad does hold that experience is everything. For each student who attends Chai Tots for a year, baking challah and saying the prayers, that’s one more Jewish soul adding to the number of mitzvot in the world.

Ilene Vogelstein is the director for the Alliance for Jewish Early Childhood Education, and she points out that the early years of childhood are critical ones in terms of brain development. In the first five years of life, “the neural pathways are being formed, and the brain is designed to absorb the experiences that children are exposed to,” she says. “So, if you’ve been exposed to Shabbat, you’re hard-wired for that experience, even if you don’t come back to it for a long time. It’s sort of like a bungee cord if you’re exposed to it—you have a frame of reference. You bounce back up.”

Others suggest that this reading of brain development, the strength of that bungee cord, might be optimistic. “I believe that such early childhood experiences need to be reinforced as the child grows older,” says Beck, who has worked with Vogelstein in the past. “If the experiences are not reinforced, I doubt they would make a significant dent in the child’s Jewish identity in the long term.”

Chabad, however, seems to be throwing its considerable muscle and resources behind assessments like Vogelstein’s. Or perhaps a better way to think of their efforts is as a guard against needing the bungee cord altogether, to mangle a metaphor. Why would these children need something to snap them back to Judaism if they never leave?

Beck says that when she thinks of Chabad, authenticity is the first word that comes to mind. “They’re very welcoming and operate from the heart. It emanates from the belief that every Jew is created in the image of God. It’s what they truly believe. Any person, secular or observant, can detect it.” Such authenticity can be very compelling and enticing, no matter where you lie on the denominational spectrum.

Chabad’s ability to market this authenticity so well, to wrap a strict form of Judaism in layers of welcoming warmth, is no small feat. “They make Judaism seem accessible and doable,” Beck says. “They have a formula and it doesn’t seem formulaic.”

The Brooklyn mother who was rankled by the gender inequality is quite aware of Chabad’s formula. And she is direct about the fact that the Lubavitch life is not one she wants for her offspring. “Listen, I think it’s weird, it’s like a cult with the proselytizing,” she says. “Do I want my daughters to have 12 kids? No.” And yet her objections to a Chabad-run school faded when she visited Chai Tots. “I went there, and it was really lovely,” she says. “The director was wonderful; I liked the teachers better than at the other schools, and it was five blocks from my house.” Her children, however, did not end up at Chai Tots. But chalk it up to the hyper-competitive nature of New York City preschools and not to any religious considerations. “I would have sent my kids there,” she says. “But they didn’t get in.”

Ellen Umansky is a Tablet Magazine contributing editor.

Print Email
Leah says:

It’s amazing how the chabadniks in this article come across as deceptive, “smooth-talking” and sly, when all they’re doing is running a pre-school, and a pretty good one at that — which you grudgingly give them. I think the people being judgmental and sterotyping here are those ascribing malicious intent.
Isaac Josephson seems to have a G-d concept that’s stuck at the preschool level. Perhaps less cynicism and more openness would help.
Your “Orthodox Brooklyn Mom” who’s irked that the kids make kippot for the dads and bracelets for the moms is kidding herself if she thinks she’s going to find something different in any Orthodox school.

kag1989 says:

I think, for me, what is disturbing about Chabad’s thousands of couples who go out into the world with some kind of agenda, is that these couples are sometimes not well educated in subjects other than religion.

The Chabad Rabbi who came to my city, was very enthusiastic and his wife is very gracious and they have settled in and are the focal point for a myriad of holiday events; lunch and learn programs and women’s luncheons and too many children’s programs to count.

When the Rabbi’s wife had a baby, I wanted to give them a teddy bear and the book about Padington Bear (the new mother was from England). I mentioned this to a friend, and she told me to forget my plans and choose something else as a gift, as a bear (even a teddy bear) is not a kosher animal, and the family would not permit their children to have toys or books that have non kosher animals in them.

At first I was shocked and saddened. I looked at my numerous bookshelves and the hundreds of books that I cherish. At first I thought, the rabbi’s family must be a very sad place with no children’s books. I thought about all the things that, to my ignorant thinking, made me feel that this couple lead a very dull, dark life.

Then I thought, if they have never known something, how can they miss it or feel deprived of it? As I had the opportunity to get to know the family and their children (they now have four), I discovered they have a wealth of children’s books, videos and toys to play with. They love to listen to music and their children seem playful, happy and well socialized.

I learned a very important lesson:Don’t judge others. I know that this family probably believes that I am not a “good” Jew. I wear pants and short sleeves and I do not keep kosher. Oh, and my husband isn’t Jewish, I am a college graduate and I work full time outside the home.

However, that said, whenever I have attended one of their adult education classes, or attend their monthly women’s luncheon, I am made to feel welcome.

The preschool project is one very important thing that shouldn’t be taken lightly. The Chabbad’s work is a gods bless.

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

The Rebbe’s Teachings

As Chabad opens preschools across the country, secular parents try to reconcile the movement with the classroom

More on Tablet:

Passover Cocktails For Each of the Ten Plagues

By Louis Nayman — Kosher for Passover concoctions to pair with pestilence, blood, and boils