Temple Israel students who began college this year have a special nickname for themselves. It doesn’t have to do with COVID-19 or with their time in confirmation class or shared experiences during their b’nai mitzvah year. They call themselves “Miss Jane’s Class” because they trace their friendship and their connection to their community all the way back to their earliest years at TI’s Deutsch Early Childhood Center (DECC), when they were first taught by the indomitable Jane Weinhaus.
They attended different secular schools from elementary on and are off exploring this strange first year of college that is unlike anything they or their parents could have imagined. But it’s their connection to DECC that first and best defined them.
That rootedness at DECC is a sentiment I know well. I’ve heard it at countless new-board-member dinners, when each member shares what brought them to TI; it’s nearly always some version of “my children started preschool here and we never left.” I’ve seen it in my own children, who still count among their closest buddies the “temple friends” they first met at DECC.
And now, 50 years after DECC opened, I hear it from new grandparents who attended DECC and now proudly walk a third generation of their family into the school.
To be sure, DECC has gone through some serious changes, even just in the 13 years that I’ve been a rabbi at Temple Israel. When I started at TI, we had 40 children in the preschool. After hiring Leslie Wolf as our preschool director, the feel of the school changed considerably. Flexible hours, commitment to students with diverse needs and backgrounds, and a talented staff helped DECC quintuple in size in just a few years.
Those growing pains made something else clear: With so many children in the building (and so many diapers), a physical upgrade had to be considered, so we launched our Reimagining Campaign, a three-phrase fundraising campaign and project to update the building.
We were already midway through fundraising and early renovations when COVID hit. Each of us remembers how scary last March was, when we had no idea what this virus would grow to be, but at DECC it hit us particularly hard. Our beloved Miss Jane made national news when she and several other teachers fell ill. We know now how easily and quickly COVID spreads, but back then it created a sense of fear and panic that kept many of us awake at night for weeks on end. We closed the school to keep our students and teachers safe and to determine what would come next.
And remarkably, blessedly, what came next turned out to be pretty awesome. Miss Jane and her fellow teachers recovered. With the school closed, we had the time and space to renovate our building without needing to move students out of their comfort zones. The updates, such as sinks in every classroom, new HVAC, an infant room with a direct exit to the outside and security improvements, happened to be exactly what we also needed in these difficult times. The dream of having a physical space as beautiful as the mensch-making that happens inside it was finally realized.
This fall, we opened DECC again to our teachers and students. Parents, grandparents and congregants will still have to wait their turn until COVID is behind us and we can safely open all of our doors wide enough to include everyone who wants to be in the synagogue building.
But the essential work of DECC continues on, and 50 years after opening, we’re ready for a whole new school full of children to build the connections, friendships and love of community that will define them for the rest of their lives.
Rabbi Amy Feder is senior rabbi of Congregation Temple Israel.