Jewish Journal


March 8, 2012

Preschool combines Jewish curriculum, Montessori method


Montessori teacher Sonya Neutel facilitates 2-year-old Sydney Greenwood’s child-led education process. Photo courtesy of  Olam Jewish Montessori

Montessori teacher Sonya Neutel facilitates 2-year-old Sydney Greenwood’s child-led education process. Photo courtesy of Olam Jewish Montessori

At a table in the corner of Olam Jewish Montessori’s oversized classroom, a flour-covered 4-year-old chats nonstop as he mixes dough for challah. In another part of the room, a 3-year-old boy counts colorful Chanukah candles in Hebrew as he slowly places them in a menorah. A teacher is showing a third child a map of Paris while he toys with a model Eiffel Tower in his hands.

In the background, a beaming Robyn Farber can hardly believe what she sees.

“I’m still in a state of shock, it’s almost a surreal experience, said Farber, who founded the school for children ages 2 to 5 in September 2011. “When I walk through the doors and see the kids in the classroom, I pretty much come to tears.”

Her only regret is that her own children, ages 9 and 5, missed out on this unique Jewish learning experience.

Housed in Irvine’s Beth Jacob Congregation, Olam is Orange County’s newest Jewish preschool and the only one in the county that marries a traditional Judaic studies curriculum with the teaching methods of the famed Italian educator Maria Montessori. Pre-reading, math and number skills, science and social studies are intertwined with studies of the Bible, Jewish laws, and culture and holiday celebrations, all in keeping with Beth Jacob’s Modern Orthodox philosophy. A unit on the animal kingdom is combined with the story of Noah’s ark. Students recently celebrated Tu B’Shevat by planting flowers and herbs.

Although Montessori designed her child-centered method for teaching secular studies, educators at more than 30 Jewish preschools throughout North America have adopted her approach over the past 15 years as an alternative to developmental-style teaching. Farber said Montessori’s emphasis on respect, independence and nurturing a child’s innate desire for discovery make it the perfect medium through which to deliver Jewish education.

“To give children the independence about how they learn is parallel with Jewish education,” she said. “Torah lishma, learning for the sake of learning, is integral to both Jewish and Montessori teaching. Montessori education gives honor to the child when he learns for learning’s sake and not for rewards or grades or overpraising.”

Love for Israel and the Hebrew language are also integral to Olam’s curriculum, with students learning pre-reading skills in Hebrew as they do in English. Each of the multisensory language learning tools for which the Montessori method is known, like sandpaper letters and phonetic boxes that hold objects with single-syllable names, have their English and Hebrew equivalents in the multi-age classroom. Director Isabelle Harris, who taught children in Israel before moving to California, speaks to students in Hebrew only.

Olam Jewish Montessori is the culmination of a five-year quest by Beth Jacob parents for a preschool of their own.

With enrollment full at the local Jewish preschools, frustrated Beth Jacob parents found their children relegated to wait lists; many reluctantly sent their children to secular preschools.

Farber chose a Montessori school in Dana Point for her daughter. The experience was eye-opening.

“It was the most Jewish-like environment of any preschool I had seen, even though the school was not Jewish,” she said. “The kids were learning for the sake of learning. There was a real energy in the classroom.”

Farber was so impressed that she invited other Beth Jacob parents to observe the class. They liked the method but agreed that it would need a strong Jewish component if it were to be incorporated into a curriculum for their longed-for Jewish preschool.

The stars finally aligned for the would-be school when the building adjacent to Beth Jacob went on the market last year. With a shared parking lot between them to accommodate additional traffic, enough outdoor play space to meet California’s childcare facility regulations, and growing demand for services at the burgeoning synagogue, the building seemed to offer the solution congregants were looking for.

Anticipating the launch of the new school, its three teachers-in-waiting became credentialed in the Montessori method. Meanwhile, several Beth Jacob members donated the cash to purchase the building, which today houses the preschool, a Sephardic minyan and a community mikveh.

Additional funding for the school came from the Jewish Community Foundation; Jewish Federation & Family Services, Orange County; and the Bronfman Youth Fellowships.

Prospective parents often have a lot of questions about the Montessori method, and Farber said there is a lot of misinformation about with the approach is and isn’t. She welcomes parents to see what Olam offers and how it differs from other Jewish programs in the community. She hopes the school, which began with 11 students, will hit its capacity of 68 by September 2012.

“There has been a lot of excitement about the program,” she said. “Overall, people see it as something that has been missing from the community.”

For more information, call (949) 786-5230, ext. 201, or For more information, call (949) 786-5230 ext. 201 or visit olamjewishmontessori.com.

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