April 22, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Teaneck: Looking Back, Moving Forward

In September of 1988, I entered the halls of Gan Rina Nursery School for the very first time. The school, owned and operated by my grandmother, Rena Taubes, a’h, had already existed in Teaneck for over 10 years and was then one of the very few Jewish preschool programs in the area. My father grew up in Teaneck, and like many young couples, my parents lived in the West Gate apartments (rented for about $600 a month!). After school and on Sundays, we would often play at the single Votee Park playground, where we would meet other children both from the Jewish community and from the broader neighborhood.

Only four established Orthodox shuls then functioned in the community, though some newer ones were just starting; most people chose a shul based on its proximity to their home. We davened at Rinat Yisrael, where my father was the Gabbai. The shul was then working on its (first) new building, having outgrown its members’ basements and a subsequent small house. Most Shabbat shopping was done at the relatively new Glatt Express, Teaneck’s only kosher grocery store. On special occasions we would go out to eat in one of Teaneck’s four (!!) Kosher restaurants (Noah’s Ark had opened that year); we usually went to Jerusalem Pizza on Cedar Lane, sat on the “no smoking side” and looked to see what movies were playing at the old Cedar Lane theater across the street.

Both of my parents were working full time (not as common back then) and wanted to send me and my siblings to a nursery program that would instill Jewish values while helping us to socialize and grow both physically and academically. The choices for yeshiva elementary schools were Yavneh, Moriah, or the Yeshiva of North Jersey, then in Bergen County less than 10 years. There were even fewer outside choices for preschool.

My grandmother began her career as preschool educator in the old YMHA in Hackensack, and after a few years was invited by Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck to start its new nursery program. In the mid-1970s, as the community grew and more and more Jewish families were moving in, the need for another preschool arose, and this time Rena started her own nursery, Gan Rina, in rented rooms at Temple Emeth. Year after year the school filled up with children whose parents were looking for a special preschool experience. My classmates and I came in with joyful, bright, smiling faces which were the result of Rena’s unique, natural pedagogic talents.

At a time when preschool was viewed by many as simply group babysitting, Rena saw it as a path to so much more. Her natural sense of the children in her classroom inspired creative projects, exciting trip opportunities, and especially her famous “piano time”— which was a great favorite of children every year. I remember like yesterday one fall day when a child in my class said that she had never seen a real pumpkin. My grandmother decided on the spot to “rectify” this. She called my grandfather and another parent with a minivan and together they loaded all the children into the back of their cars and drove off to a farm. There we walked through a pumpkin patch and picked some special pumpkins to bring back to school. Returning to class, we cut the pumpkin, toasted the seeds, and made pumpkin pie… I can still remember the delicious way the classroom smelled, all because one child said she had never seen a real pumpkin!

In September of 2013, I found myself once again entering the halls of Gan Rina, this time as the new Director. Our community has certainly grown and changed over the past 25 years! While expecting our first child, my husband and I decided to move from Washington Heights to Teaneck. Like my parents, we moved into the West Gate apartments, now rented for $1,500 a month and up. The number of playgrounds in Votee Park alone has tripled since the days I first went there; the number of shuls has quadrupled and many have expanded in size. When choosing a shul—because so many are nearby—it is now less a matter of location than of hashkafah, friends and relationship with the rabbi. The choices of restaurants, take-out spots, and cafes is now enough that one could eat out nightly for a month and almost never go to the same place twice! The community boundaries go beyond Teaneck into Bergenfield and even New Milford.

As our community has grown and changed, so have our notions of family life and our views on early childhood education. Today, more and more children live in two-income homes. The cost of living has increased beyond just the price of rent or food; much has been written, for example, about the price of yeshiva education and the communal responsibility to support many institutions so that parents can have choices in assessing which program best meets their children’s academic, social and physical needs.

The increase in the number of parents working full-time has also caused a dramatic increase in the number of parents looking for both day care and early childhood programs. Expectations of what a child will get out of these programs have also changed. While children once first learned to read and write in first grade, they are now expected to do so in kindergarten. More children than ever before are receiving early intervention services and parents are looking for programs that give even young children a well-rounded and strong education. Teachers today realize that they need to be a morah, a mommy, a friend, a babysitter, an OT, a PT and a developmental specialist.

With all the changes in our community, Gan Rina changed as well. When Temple Emeth decided to open its own preschool, Gan Rina moved to its current location at Congregation Beth Shalom, where the spark of light my grandmother brought to the program continued until her untimely passing in 1997. There was a thought at the time that the school might close, but the dedicated teachers who had been working with my grandmother decided for the sake of the community and my grandmother’s memory to keep it open. I joined the program three years ago and am now sending my oldest child to the school. Together, the morot have looked for ways to keep my grandmother’s creativity and spontaneity alive, while adopting the latest teaching techniques, adhering to modern standards, and honoring the need for things like permission slips, buses and car seats for trips to the farm!

This year, I became Director of the school and I reflect upon what I expect and need for my own son and consider what I hear from his friends’ parents in order to develop our program accordingly. Last year, we introduced our Hebrew immersion program; this year we started our Healthy Living Program. Next year Gan Rina will be extending its hours and will be opening classes to a wider age range, including pre-K.

With the start of another school year, I think about my family putting down more roots here in Teaneck and look forward to what the future holds for us and our community. My son, like his mother and over a thousand other children, will have received his first taste of a Jewish school at Gan Rina and he will eventually move on to one of the many yeshiva day schools in the area. I hope that when he looks back at his first experiences as part of the Jewish community that he is proud of that community which is helping to raise him and is appreciative of the groundwork that his parents, grandparents and great- grandparents have laid for him.

By Rue Taubes

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