Talk about chicken soup for the soul. The children at the Billy Dalwin Preschool of Temple Emunah in Lexington, Mass., learn at a young age about preparing for Shabbat dinner by participating in a sing-along about all the possible ingredients that could go into chicken soup: from Matzah balls, of course, to creative possibilities like pizza and grapes. “We’ll take any response we can get, since these are little guys,” said Shelley Rossman, founding director of the preschool, who says that instilling the seeds of Jewish identity and tradition can come through the use of engaging and meaningful songs that are catchy and short.
The Billy Dalwin Pre-School of Temple Emunah is one of over 30 Jewish preschools in the Boston area, ranging from Orthodox to reform Jewish. These preschools often serve as a gateway into the Jewish community, synagogue membership, and continued Jewish education. For Rossman, who has served in secular and Jewish settings for more than 30 years, the preschool is an opportunity to merge her love of early childhood education with meaningful Judaic curriculum. “My kids are 29 and 25 now, and they went to a temple preschool but there wasn’t the range of choices and programs that parents today have,” said Rossman. “If we do our job right, our program combines the quality and depth and breath of any other curriculum; the difference is synthesized in a whole that also addresses Jewishness.”
On any typical day, Rossman and her staff of 12 can come in “wearing sneakers but we should be wearing roller skates to get through the day,” said Rossman. The preschool enrolls up to 57 children between the ages of 2-5, and Rossman finds herself doing much more than administrative duties and papers pushing: often, there’s “clean up on aisle four,” said Rossman, joking about the frequent need to wipe up “liquid fluids” in the bathroom when the custodian isn’t around.
Q: Kids can ask funny questions. What are some humorous questions they’ve asked you over the years?
A: There always interesting questions about god. “Where did god come from?” or “What was there before god?” I find myself scratching my head, and thinking, “and this kid is only three or four years old!”
Q: What are some fun programs you’ve had lately?
A: Every year we have an imaginary trip to Israel. The first time we tried this venture, we included a pretend trip to the Dead Sea. We set up wading pools and one teacher brought massive amounts of top soil from her house. The children smeared themselves top to bottom with mud, simulating mineral massages. It was fun and a big success – except that it was 48 degrees in May. Not quite a beach day.
Q: You’ve been teaching preschool for over three decades. How have things changed over the years?
A: I see more kids who coming from homes with two working parents, showing the financial realities of our times. I’ve also noticed children have more and more structured activities, whether it’s ballet or karate, with less downtime. So we try to encourage development of imagination that allows organic play.
Q: Everyone has good and bad days on the job. What was one of your worst days?
A: A few years ago, one of my teachers came into my office and said, “This one I’m not doing” and pointed to the boy’s bathrooms. So I went into the urinal, and cleaned up the stall, all the while thinking, ‘I have a master’s degree plus graduate credit; I’m an adjunct faculty member at Lesley University, and look at me: I’m cleaning up poop.”