Early Learning Center at RS

by Rabbi Jill Maderer

An Early Learning Center at RS:  “From the lips of babes and infants you have established strength” (Psalms 8:3).  Next fall, our “youngest generation” will strengthen our community with its daily presence at a Congregation Rodeph Shalom of Center City Philadelphia Jewish preschool.   The Congregation’s new property across Mt. Vernon Street will open as the starter location for the Rodeph Shalom Buerger Early Learning Center in September 2010.

The Vision: Totally integrated into the life of RS, the ELC will promote the intellectual, physical, social and emotional development of each child while celebrating the rich traditions of Jewish life.  Rodeph Shalom’s rabbis will establish the Jewish content with the goal of preparing students and families for a lifetime of Jewish practice.   Not simply a day-care center, the ELC will offer Philadelphia families a full early learning curriculum while providing child care hours.  Once open, the ELC will be able to work towards current standards of naeyc accreditation and Keystone Stars.

While diversity will be welcomed and valued, our first priority will be to serve the members of the congregation.  In an effort to support the many different family structures and career paths of our community’s parents, the ELC, when fully developed, will offer both part-time and full-day schedules for children ages 0-5. 

FELS: RS plans to work in partnership with Federation Early Learning Services (FELS), a highly experienced Jewish preschool organization.  While FELS will manage the day-to-day operations, secure licensing and  accreditation, the congregation will be the home of the ELC and its families.  We look forward to working closely with FELS and benefiting from its reputation and expertise.

Our RS Community: We aim to attract new members with the ELC and to expand the number of years a family affiliates and participates in Jewish life.  We are not a synagogue that revolves around any one single life moment—our families are not here just for B’nei Mitzvah or Confirmation, High Holy Days or weddings.  Our congregation strengthens its members by bringing holiness and community to all different life experiences: we have discussion groups for bereavement and empty-nesters; we have social activism, study and prayer.  Our congregational purpose is to embrace all stages of life.  And now, finally, we will expand our tent and offer an early childhood program to our families with the youngest children.

This fall, Inside magazine featured an article entitled “Get with the Programs: Jewish Preschools Prove to be a Boon to Synagogue Membership Rolls.”  In the article, Ellen Walters, the early childhood education consultant at the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education, explains that early childhood education is the best feeder for the families who want to join a synagogue.  At RS, we are extremely excited to anticipate daily contact with some of our youngest members and prospective families.

Demand: Demand for childcare and early learning continues to grow in the greater Philadelphia area and in Center City, in particular. In fact, the “Get with the Programs” article reports “a growing spirit of competition as families vie for coveted spaces.” Area preschools are expanding their programs and families join wait-lists while they are still pregnant or still in a process of adoption.  The Rodeph Shalom Buerger Early Learning Center will offer a new option as the first full-day Jewish childcare or preschool in Center City.

Thank You: Thank you to the Early Learning Center committee and its co-chairs, Michelle Fogg and Nina Spizer, for recognizing the demand, setting forth the vision, and waiting with patience.  Thank you to the Board of Trustees for embracing the vision and preparing to shape the future.  Thank you to Connie and Alan Buerger for making this future possible with your extraordinary generosity and vision.

Moving Forward: I look forward to sharing progress of the development of the Rodeph Shalom Buerger Early Learning Center in the Bulletin, on the website  and on this blog.  If you would like to be notified when we begin to accept applications, please contact Catherine Fischer, RS Membership Director, cfischer@rodephshalom.org.  To paraphrase the Psalm, from the lips of babes and infants, may we be strengthened.

Buerger Early Learning Center Starter Facility Details, by Thomas Perloff

On July 16, 2009 the Congregation purchased the property across Mt. Vernon Street at 619 N. Broad, the former Wilkie Subaru site. Although the investment was significant, the Board concluded that this was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to purchase this adjoining property. Key considerations were:

· The value of the property should increase with the maturation of the Arts North Special District

·  Sunday mornings and key times during the week, the congregation is already very tight on space

·  The accessibility of the property makes it attractive as a community resource

·  Some alternative purchasers of the property would have detracted from our Strategic Plan to become the Philadelphia center for Reform Jewish life

In a parallel initiative the Board engaged the internationally renowned architecture firm of KieranTimberlake (KT) to translate the Master Facilities Plan into a Pre-Schematic Design. As KT was wrapping up their project, it became clear that it would take a minimum of three years from the time funding was secured to solve the safety and accessibility challenges of our building while adding desired functional space.

One of the programs where, as Rabbi Maderer details, there is a perceived need in the Center City Jewish community is childcare. Connie and Alan Buerger have responded to this need by generously providing funding to start and support an Early Learning Center (ELC) at the Congregation. Initial efforts to find space in our building to start the ELC were stymied by safety and regulatory challenges and plans to build a free-standing facility proved exorbitant.

Bridging these dynamics, on October 6th the Board approved a plan to renovate the facility at 619 N. Broad Street for a starter facility for the Buerger Early Learning Center. The renovated facility will accommodate three levels of childcare and a protected outdoor playground. The cost of the renovations will be subsumed by the Buerger’s gift and the construction plan should allow an opening by September 2010.

Starting the ELC in a more modest-sized facility will make it more economical to ramp up the enrollment while plans are progressing for integrated space within the expanded main building. The adjacency will encourage programmatic and logistic support from the “mother ship.” Also, critically, the renovated space can be utilized immediately by the thriving Mercaz Limud (Religious School). Lastly, the renovations will be flexible enough to allow a variety of congregational and community uses after the ELC grows into its permanent space.

As the planning morphs into construction, the congregation will be kept informed through the Bulletin and the website.