In our Brooklyn neighborhood, it’s said you should put your kid on a waiting list for child care while she is still in the amniotic sac. And when it comes to preschool, don’t hold your breath — unless, that is, you’ve got good connections. When it was our turn, I attended workshops on applying to preschool, toured half a dozen schools and subjected my daughter to interviews masked as “play dates” with the current students.
While I never went inside the local Chabad preschool, I did peer through the window. It looked cute, but as somebody who was raised attending a Reform synagogue, I had a hard time getting past my own preconceived notions — namely that the walls would be covered in photos of the rebbe and that my daughter would come home insisting on wearing long skirts.
Recently, however, I have learned that many of my nonreligious friends are turning to Chabad for preschool. And not just in New York.
Chabad operates 1,000 preschools worldwide, including 300 in Israel and 400 in the United States. In 2010, Chabad launched a special early childhood initiative called The Machne Israel David and Lara Slager Early Childhood Initiative. In the past two and half years, this fund helped in the creation of 45 new preschools (most in North America, and two each in Argentina, South Africa and Australia). There are plans to create another 100 over the next four years.
For the most part, the schools are intended to attract secular parents like Anna Sandler. She was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when it was time to send her eldest child to preschool. Competition was so fierce that when she called around to the local preschools and apologized for missing the deadline, the representatives simply laughed in her face.
That’s when a friend suggested she check out the Chabad Early Learning Center, located on the Upper West Side.
“From the very beginning it was such a lovely experience,” said Sandler, who runs a social media company and identifies as nonobservant. Though the schools aren’t free, parents said the tuition is usually comparable to other local preschools. Her child was accepted into the school, and Sandler said she never felt judged.
For the unfamiliar, Chabad is a Hasidic group headquartered in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Its adherents believe, among other things, that secular Jews ought to become more observant.