It’s early April, the first warm day of spring. Fresh air and sunshine top the list of things to enjoy today at Columbia’s Bet Yeladim Preschool.

Teachers put babies and toddlers into multi-passenger strollers. One soothes her charges by softly singing “The Wheels on the Bus.” The grown-ups avoid traffic jams but with so many babies on board, negotiating the corner that turns from the main hallway into the lobby area can be tricky business.

“We are at capacity,” says Jodi Fishman, executive director of Bet Yeladim, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. The school, which holds 175 children ages 8 weeks to 4 years old, actually had to turn away several children this year, she says.

Bet Yeladim families, staff and directors will celebrate the school’s success May 7 with a casino night gala at historic Savage Mill. The event will honor Barbara Frederick, Bet Yeladim’s current associate director, who retires in July after 36 years with the school.

Among those attending will be board member Leslie Brodsky, who attended Bet Yeladim as a child and now has children of her own there. “It’s not uncommon,” says Fishman, for former students to show up later at Bet Yeladim to enroll their own youngsters. “We have a couple of teachers now who were here as children.”

Having known them as children, Frederick says she has to remind herself they’re not kids any more. “I have to stop myself from calling them ‘Sweetie,’ “ she says, smiling.

Benjamin Reisner (held by Maddy Chinn), Joanna Lardieri (middle) and Rebecca Neuman-Sunshine (right) attend Bet Yeladim Preschool’s nursery program. (Photo by Ed Bunyan)

The school blossomed in the 1970s from the efforts of a group of Howard County stay-at-home moms, including longtime director Jean Grinspoon, who will be on hand for the gala. They initially gathered their youngsters in each other’s homes before establishing their first permanent home in the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center. A few moves later, the school now sits along Route 108.

Parents who serve on Bet Yeladim’s board of directors often come back to the same word when describing their initial attraction and continuing affinity for the school: warmth.

“On our first visit, we felt so welcomed,” says board president Mark Burkom. “It had a real warm, community feel.”

Alisha Rovner, another parent serving on the board, says the school’s reputation has made her role as gala organizer relatively easy. “When we’ve asked for sponsorships and in-kind donations, I can’t think of one organization that was unwilling,” she says.

Rovner says one important ingredient in Bet Yeladim’s success is its flexibility in engaging children. “They work with the child where it’s best to work with them,” she says.

Lead teacher Marcie Cissell meets kids entering Bet Yeladim’s half-day program by actually visiting their homes so they can first get to know her on their own turf. She engages children with a “sensory tube” and other toys that stimulate young minds.

“I come in like Mary Poppins with my big bag,” Cissell says.

At Bet Yeladim — which Fishman says is one of the few Jewish early childhood programs not launched by or affiliated with a synagogue — children recite prayers, sing songs in Hebrew and observe Jewish holidays. But the school has many students and staff who are not Jewish.

“Everyone’s welcome, but everything is viewed and taught through Jewish lenses,” Fishman says.

Having a multi-cultural environment grounded in Jewish tradition has proved attractive to many parents. “There’s real diversity there, which we wanted for our children,” says Burkom, whose daughter, Maizy, graduated from Bet Yeladim to kindergarten this school year. “She doesn’t associate Judaism with any single ethnicity or culture.”

The school has a number of male teachers, unusual in a setting generally populated by women. “Men have a different way of looking at things,” Fishman says. “We think that’s a good thing, to have that perspective.”

Frederick started at Bet Yeladim as a teacher’s assistant after five years of teaching special education in Baltimore City Public Schools. Fishman, who has been executive director for six years, marvels at Frederick’s ability to put together new enrichment programs and events.

“I said something to her like ‘It would be nice to have a Transportation Day.’ All of a sudden there was this enormous event,” she says.

Frederick, who will be succeeded by Cissell, admits she’ll miss Bet Yeladim, but “it’s time for some new eyes, a different perspective. [Cissell] will bring her own gifts.”

For information about Bet Yeladim Preschool’s 40th Anniversary Gala and Casino Night, visit betyeladim40.eventbrite.com.

Top photo: Paula Daniels, the lead teacher in the class explains what a baked egg is during a lesson on the Seder at Bet Yeladim Preschool. (Photo by Ed Bunyan)

Doug Miller is a Columbia-based freelance writer.

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