Synagogues Share Similar Preschool, Religious School Reopening Plans

Synagogues across the Twin Cities are planning for preschools and religious school programs to reopen in the fall, using either full-time or hybrid models. Among the different programs, congregations, and leadership, everyone had one main desire in common: To support young families and working parents by providing engaging childcare and education programs for their children. 

One synagogue that took early action toward that goal was Bet Shalom, which reopened its Yeladim early childhood center (ECC) on May 11. They were the first Jewish ECC to do so and it has been extremely successful with no transmissions or complications so far, Executive Director Steve Barberio said. The synagogue made the decision to reopen, he said, after consulting a number of experts and hearing from congregants that childcare was becoming an essential need.

“We opened up our early childhood center before any of the other synagogues or the JCC,” Barberio said. “That was a calculated assessment based on what others were doing, based on what our parents were telling us, and what the CDC and the state was saying.”

The actual programming has not been altered, Barberio says, although the day has been shortened to allow for sanitizing before and after school. They’re currently at about 50% capacity and using a cohort model, where students stay in their own groups with their teachers and don’t interact with other cohorts. Temperature checks, frequent sanitizing, and constant mask-wearing are also required. 

At Beth El, the conversations Managing Director Matt Walzer has had with synagogue leadership and with parents have been similar. Beth El is planning to reopen Aleph Preschool in the fall, with strict procedures around building airflow, temperature checks, sanitizing, masks, and more. 

“We’ve made sure that we’ve met Minnesota Department of Health and CDC guidelines, and then we’ve worked with a variety of experts, including a consultant we’ve been working with, on building protocols and procedures that we believe are best suited for both Beth El and Aleph Preschool,” Walzer said. 

Aleph Preschool will use a cohort model similar to Bet Shalom’s, and will also be keeping the capacity around 50%. They also opted to run only full-time school, and not reopen any part-time or other flexible scheduling options that are normally available. Walzer sees the preschool reopening as a way to reconnect with a portion of Beth El’s congregation that hasn’t been well-served virtually.

“The reason that we started with Aleph Preschool is because of the people we serve,” Walzer said. “The young families, Aleph Preschool families, are a demographic we have been unable to serve without being open.”

Walzer and Barberio said their synagogues are both committed to continuing B’nai Mitzvah for families whether that involves small, single-household groups visiting the sanctuary or large, 400-person Zoom ceremonies. At Beth El, Walzer says discussions are currently ongoing about how to reopen their B’nai Mitzvah preparation program this fall, and said the synagogue is planning to begin virtually and distribute materials directly to families’ homes. 

Adath Jeshurun’s Gan Shelanu preschool will also reopen in September, says preschool director Janice Schachtman. She’s been in regular contact with preschool directors at other local synagogues, and said the Gan’s sanitizing and social distancing protocols will be closely following CDC and Minnesota Department of Health guidelines.

Schachtman highlighted one particular challenge: The preschool has many families who have both preschool and elementary-age children, and those parents have to wait for their school districts to make announcements before they can decide to send their younger children to the Gan. 

“We have over 40 families who have elementary-aged kids, so right now they’re on the fence because they don’t know what’s going to be happening in the schools,” Schachtman said. “If they have to get a nanny for their elementary-aged kids, are they going to send their kid to the preschool? Probably not, because why would they pay double?”

Like Beth El, Schachtman said the preschool will operate with limited enrollment, and spots are only being offered to families who were already registered before the school closed in March. The synagogue is ready to either reduce or expand program options at a moment’s notice, Schachtman said, as the nature of the pandemic changes. 

“I really want to emphasize this: We’re just concerned about the safety and the health of our students, their families, and our staff,” she said. “That’s really, really important to us and that’s the guiding light here.”

Elsewhere at Temple Israel, synagogue leaders have not announced a decision about their religious school and B’nai Mitzvah program that normally begins in September for older children — although B’nai Mitzvah preparations continued via Zoom since things shut down in March. However, they do plan to reopen the ECC to support isolated young families and begin providing as much in-person Jewish valued-focused education as possible within a context of mitigating risk with small cohorts and maximizing continuity with distance learning. Only a small number of children will be enrolled, and the program will begin as a hybrid 3 days in-person, 2 days virtual model. 

“Early childhood centers have been open this whole time for people who are essential workers, so we knew that there was a lot of wisdom out there,” said Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman, explaining that the synagogue convened a group of experts to inform their decision-making.

Similar conversations have occurred at Beth Jacob, said Rabbi Tamar Grimm, and decisions have not yet been made about the full spectrum of programming the synagogue may offer. Over the summer, B’nai Mitzvah preparation continued virtually with both a 1:1 teacher and student model and a group format, and the synagogue also hosted virtual Hebrew school sessions with a variety of activities. 

“We’re looking at, what are the modalities that we can offer so that everyone can learn,” Grimm said. “Whatever we wind up doing needs to ensure that everyone not only has access to learning content, but has access to that sense of community. I think there’s no question that some of it will be virtual — it has to be.”

Temple of Aaron Cantor and Education Director Joshua Fineblum said the synagogue will continue with virtual programming through December for their religious school, which serves early childhood through high school. Like many other institutions, Fineblum formed a task force with health care and education professionals, and ultimately came to the conclusion that in-person religious school was not an option for the congregation. 

“We’re working on a couple different models right now to make sure we can do what we need to do for our parents and families, and for the safety of our community,” Fineblum said. “Especially for our students, to make sure they’re getting the education they want and they need from us, too.”

Fineblum said the synagogue is planning to host regular socially-distanced events for religious school families, including a September kickoff to begin the fall term. He said he wants to provide that community connection while also remaining cautious until the pandemic begins to slow.  

At Mount Zion, Religious School Director Susan Summit said the synagogue has chosen to be fully online for the religious school program through December. Although they had planned to start a phased reopening this month, an email to congregants Aug. 3 explained that “pikuach nefesh,” or the Jewish value of saving a life, was one driving force in the decision to cancel the reopening and continue virtually through the end of the year. 

“While the core program will be online, there may be opportunities for in-person gatherings of small groups either outside or possibly inside the building in our largest space, Margolis Hall,” the email says. 

For smaller communities like Or Emet, School Director Arty Dorman said they have decided to host their monthly Jewish Cultural School programming online for September. Or Emet had already chosen to hold High Holiday services online, and since their once-a-month September school meeting would take place before Rosh Hashanah, it felt right to conduct it over Zoom as well. 

The school is housed inside the Talmud Torah of St. Paul building, so Dorman said the synagogue’s leadership has been paying very close attention to the school reopening guidance provided by the governor. Moving forward beyond September, Dorman says they hope to mimic what local school districts choose to do in order to be consistent. 

“We decided that we were going to wait and see what K-12 schools did, because that would give us a sense about what parents are comfortable with and what the community is doing,” Dorman said.