Montessori Movement Offers Jewish Educators an Alternative

By Ben Harris

Published August 26, 2005, issue of August 26, 2005.

Ayelet Lichtash has had a busy summer. In the fall, she will welcome the first class to a new preschool in North Bethesda, Md., that marries a regular Jewish curriculum with the principles of Montessori education. Her summer has been consumed with securing zoning, building a playground, recruiting teachers and inspiring parents to sign up their kids. By mid-July, nine students were enrolled, ages 2 1/2 to 5. “Believe me,” she said, “it has been a hectic year.”

No fewer than three new Jewish Montessori schools are slated to open their doors this fall. Parents who, like Lichtash, have no previous experience in education were responsible for starting the majority of them. Jewish Montessori schools have existed in the United States for more than two decades, but the current spate of openings is part of a growing trend in alternative Jewish education.

“I feel like the world is on the edge of an educational transformation,” said Shari Gershan, director of Yeshiva Shaarei Simcha, a yeshiva-style Montessori school in Clifton, N.J. “It has been happening in the secular world for a long time now. Education is really moving in an alternative direction.”

This past May, Gershan’s school hosted the second annual Jewish Montessori Partnership Conference, attracting more than 60 educators from locations as far afield as Beijing, Toronto and Miami and from a range of religious backgrounds and affiliations. More than 20 Jewish Montessori schools, ranging from upstart preschool programs to established day schools, were represented — double the number from the previous year. The schools are almost all parent-initiated, and funding runs the gamut from private donations to fund raising to grants from Jewish organizations. There is no single Montessori umbrella organization, and since the Montessori name has no protection, it’s theoretically possible for any school to call itself Montessori. The many that do so embrace the Montessori philosophy to varying degrees.

“This school has become the focal point for this new paradigm,” said Gershan’s husband, Yoni. “Without us even evangelizing, people are coming. Just the fact that we’ve doubled the number of schools in one year at the conference — it’s only the most visible aspect of the iceberg. There must be a big base underneath that. And it didn’t exist five years ago.”

The Montessori movement was founded in 1906 by Maria Montessori, an Italian physician who believed, contrary to the wisdom at the time, that human intelligence is not fixed at birth but can be stunted or stimulated by a child’s environment. She maintained that an individual’s early years, from birth to about age 6, are crucial to developing a love of learning that will last a lifetime. Montessori classrooms are colorful affairs, stocked with activities and games that children are encouraged to explore on their own, rather than at the command of a

teacher. Unlike in a traditional classroom, the teacher’s role is less to instruct than to direct and facilitate the student’s own explorations.

“Montessori is a philosophy,” said Marlene Barron, head of West Side Montessori School in Manhattan and a former president of the American Montessori Society. “The goal is to create a humanistic, respectful individual, to develop the full potential of a person in every area — physical, social, emotional, intellectual.”

Gershan and a partner started Shaarei Simcha six years ago, soliciting students through word of mouth and with posted signs in Jewish establishments. She had hoped to enroll seven children in the inaugural class; instead, 16 children were registered when the school opened in her basement in September 2000.

“We turned people away the first year,” Gershan said. “The phone never stopped ringing, even to this day.”

Gershan’s school has since grown steadily, adding a grade each year. By the third year, she had 45 students and had moved into a new building, a converted firehouse on a tree-lined block. Last year, enrollment had grown to 79 students, infants through second grade.

In many respects, Clifton is the most unlikely of places for an alternative Jewish educational model to take root. Area Jews are overwhelmingly Orthodox and resistant to educational innovations that depart from time-honored traditional methods.

“The Jewish community has a very strong commitment to traditional Jewish Torah values,” said Leigh Maller, Shaarei Simcha’s education director. “I think it’s hard for some people to imagine staying committed to that tradition and at the same time embracing something alternative.”

Still, many educators believe that there is a natural affinity between Jewish education and the Montessori philosophy, though they tend to disagree on just what it is. One Jewish Montessori teacher said that Judaism is “all about choices,” just as Montessori allows children tremendous freedom of choice in the classroom.

“Both traditions want people to think,” said Barron, who herself was yeshiva educated in her hometown of Baltimore. “They want people who are problem solvers and can take apart a problem and put it back together again.”

Jewish Montessori educators cite a number of reasons for starting their schools. Susan Lazev, who is opening a school in Verona, N.J., in the fall, sees Montessori as a form of kiruv, a way to reach out to unaffiliated Jewish families who otherwise might not consider a Jewish private school. Ali Leverton is hoping that Montessori will distinguish her school from competing Jewish preschools in West Windsor, N.J. And Gershan suggests that the baal teshuvah movement, the process of previously secular Jews becoming more religiously observant, is a major contributor to the growth of Jewish Montessori.

“A lot of people with very sophisticated educational backgrounds are becoming religious, and they’re looking for good educational models for their kids,” Gershan said. “A number of parents in our school are Montessori graduates themselves. Those parents are going to be dissatisfied with the level of excellence in the schools that are steeped in tradition.” Gershan’s school offers parents a program that combines the quality they desire with the religious traditions they have embraced.

Barron sees the rise of Jewish Montessori as a correlate to the growth of Montessori worldwide. The American Montessori society, the country’s largest Montessori umbrella group, saw a more than 10% jump in membership in the past year, from 893 to 1,017 schools, though the actual number of Montessori schools in America is likely much higher, since schools that describe themselves as Montessori don’t necessarily apply for membership in AMS.

MontessoriConnections, an on-line directory, lists roughly 4,600 American schools in its database and is currently adding an average of five new ones each week. About 1,000 new schools have been added in the past seven years.

“Montessori is a movement that is expanding like wildfire,” Barron said. “Today people think about education; there are a lot more choices. I think people are looking for alternatives.”

Though their particular motivations differ, almost all Montessori educators agree that their movement is a response to perceived shortcomings in traditional education. “Schools are not clear about the mission of the school,” Barron said. “They’re not clear about what they’re trying to do besides get the kids into college. I think American education right now is driven by test scores.”

Montessori schools offer not only a specific model of education, but also a vision of the type of people they want their graduates to become.

“I don’t want [my children] to be crushed into a mold,” Yoni Gershan said. “Where are the leaders going to come from? They’re not going to come from a place where the goal is conformity.”

Chana Szenes Mischel, an educator who started a Montessori school in her basement in Highland Park, N.J., four years ago, said she couldn’t bear the thought of subjecting her younger children to the traditional Jewish education that their older siblings had received.

“Their natural love of learning was not being encouraged,” she said. “I watched them slowly become disinterested in the world around them.”

Mischel was particularly concerned about her third child, a math whiz who struggles mightily with reading. “If she were in a traditional classroom she would have been put in a special group,” Mischel said. “They would have sent her for testing to see if she was learning disabled. Her self-esteem would have suffered considerably. It sets up a child for failure, for life.”

Mischel said that when she discovered Montessori, it was as if the messiah had come. “I heard classical music playing in my head as I watched these students,” she said.

Indeed, the messianic metaphor is an apt one. Speaking to parents of Montessori-educated children is akin to encountering true believers who have seen the light.

“Everyone wants children who have high self-esteem and love,” Maller said. “I don’t think our goals are that different. But it’s how we’re getting there. We think that we’ve found a system that can help us get to the end that really we all want, in a very beautiful, natural way. We think we’ve found a system that works.”



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