A Brooklyn Brew Of Jewish And Montessori
Fri, 01/16/2009
Staff Writer
Deep in the bowels of a Prospect Heights apartment building that looks just like any other in this trendy neighborhood, down a long, winding hallway flanked on either side with burnished doors, 30 young children spend their days learning how to learn. The Luria Academy, housed in the Newswalk building, a large, hulking structure that was formerly the print house of the New York Daily News, was founded three years ago by Chabad Rabbi Ari Kirschenbaum along with neighborhood parents who came from fervently religious backgrounds but wanted a more nuanced and pluralistic Jewish education for their children. The parents felt that with a booming real estate market a few years ago and an influx of Jewish families to the neighborhood, the time was ripe to create their own preschool (the school has since grown to accommodate older children) to meet their particular Jewish and secular needs. The school accepts any halachicly Jewish children, regardless of their family practice at home. “Parents wanted their kids exposed to varying Jewish worlds,” said Bryna Leider, the school’s director. “We’re rich in that regard, never telling kids ‘this is what Jews do,’ but [having] an open dialogue on customs and backgrounds.”   In addition to a questioning, open approach to religion, the school incorporates both Jewish and Montessori education in a singular brew. Luria students develop skills in math, reading and other basics. But the students, who don’t fall into typical grade levels but are split into two classes of 3- to 5-year-olds and 6- to 9-years-olds, are also encouraged to work on their emotional development, to be aware of what they need educationally and socially and to “articulate their anxiety,” according to Leider. “[We stress] quality over quantity; we’re not blasting through textbooks,” said Leider of the Montessori method that forms the basis of the school’s educational philosophy. The Montessori method, founded by Maria Montessori, Italy’s first woman doctor, in 1907, has “been denigrated or considered fringe or fad,” said Leider. But, she continues, it has also been shown to prepare students to perform at equal levels to those of their peers in private or public schools. It stresses learning through hands-on, material experience and self-directedness; it is rare, in a Montessori classroom, to see a teacher instructing the whole class at once in a frontal, traditional manner. The method, used in many countries, is increasingly being mixed with Jewish education. Even in World War II Poland, Janusz Korczak, the Warsaw educator and orphanage director in Warsaw who famously died with his young charges in Treblinka, observed Montessori classes and incorporated some of its methods into his teaching. Today there are approximately 4,000 Montessori schools in the U.S., 40 of which are Jewish Montessori schools, according to Leigh Maller of the Center for Jewish Montessori, a teaching training and consulting organization based in Teaneck, N.J. “It’s definitely growing. I get e-mails constantly and phone calls all the time,” said Maller, referring to the parents and educators who contact her for information on how to start a Jewish Montessori-based school. “A lot of people take Montessori training but take years to integrate it into their Jewish classrooms. We try to help so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.” Luria is a huge, high-ceiled space with two classrooms and a large common area containing a kitchen, a stage, a small library and children engaged in autonomous learning. In the younger children’s classroom, kids play with blocks and review flash cards with a teacher. During Chanukah recently, they worked on developing motor skills by putting candles into a menorah.   In the older children’s classroom, a dollhouse is used to teach grammar, an abacus is used to teach math, a student prepares a snack for his class while someone else learns Torah concepts. The room — with two teachers and some children at desks and others on the floor, all working and talking at once — has the feel of highly organized chaos, with students deciding what needs to be done and no directive presence telling them what to do first, next, last. The school was named for Rabbi Isaac Luria, a 16th- century rabbi and mystic whose teachings are interpreted by the school’s to point to an open-ended educational method concerned with pulling the disparate pieces of the world together. “As Jews and as humans the job we have on this planet is to unify things, to put back this broken vessel, and I think it’s a beautiful metaphor for how we should be educating our children,” said Jacob Septimus, a founder, board member and parent at Luria. He grew up in Monsey, getting “kicked out of schools for asking challenging questions. We wanted to create a school where that would never happen, where any questions were acceptable.” Alisa Boymelgreen, Septimus’ sister and fellow founder and board member, stressed that in addition to keeping the school open in Jewish and academic terms, they also wanted to keep it creative. They wanted to be able to continue thinking outside the box as they wove the Jewish and secular, allowing children to find their place in the world. “What we all see is [that] within the world, and especially within Judaism, there’s a lot of division; if you don’t belong to a certain group you don’t understand that group,” said Boymelgreen. “You should be able to appreciate a different movement and understand their history and writings, even if that’s not how you live your life.” Leider, the school’s director, had her reservations about the Montessori/Jewish combination, but quickly “fell in love” with the combination of structure and freedom the school would provide. She said that through Montessori, in addition to regular academic tasks, students learn to take care of each other and feel independent, period. She also makes the point that they are able to go on to whatever type of school they desire (Montessori method is usually used only through elementary school). The school hopes to double its numbers next year and find a bigger space, perhaps outside of the Newswalk building, which is owned by a Luria parent. But the unique blend of Jewish and Montessori studies is likely to stay put. “This is very unlike how I was raised. I had the teacher standing in front and it was take it or leave it,” said Rabbi Kirschenbaum of the school. “This is the antithesis of that.”