"I want to create a place of wonder," said Lindy Lane-Epstein, who spent the summer attempting to animate her vision for a scaled-down preschool and kindergarten for members of Santa Ana's Temple Beth Sholom.
She started with painting in primary colors and moved on to culling well-loved toys for the best specimens.
With enrollment capped at under 50 children aged 2 to 6 and a state-mandated teacher-student ratio of 1 to 6, Lane-Epstein predicts both students and instructors will enjoy a far different experience when classes start Sept. 8.
She was hired as the preschool's new director in June to revamp the synagogue's program with a more pronounced Jewish curriculum. "I like the idea of a more intimate program," Lane-Epstein said.
While her most recent job was an assistant math teacher at a Jewish day school, Lane-Epstein also worked as a Judaica educator, teacher and assistant director of the Jewish Community Center's preschool in Costa Mesa, which then enrolled 140 students.
That and more were enrolled in Beth Sholom's preschool up until last spring. Yet after more than 30 years, operating deficits forced the synagogue to let go its full-time preschool staff and close its award-winning children's learning center (CLC), a community day-care facility used by as many as 160 children, including infants.
"When we really looked at it, it was worse than we thought," said Sylvan Swartz, the congregation's president. Costs for health insurance and worker's compensation had increased so dramatically in recent years, he said, that the congregation was contemplating program cuts elsewhere to make up the deficit.
"Did it make sense to reduce the quality and quantity of temple programs when our CLC, comprised of 75 to 80 percent non-Jewish families, was a major source of our cash drain?" Swartz explained in a synagogue bulletin.
"It didn't make sense," he said in an interview. "When we stepped back, it was obvious. We were cutting the wrong program."
The wrenching financial decision was made easier when synagogue leaders settled on starting fresh with a more Jewish orientation for its 650 families. Nonmembers could enroll their children, but at higher fees.
"We decided as a synagogue that it made more sense to start over and keep it more manageable," Swartz said.
Praised as one of the county's best child-care operations, Swartz said, "Like any small business in America, it's difficult to compete with large operations."
Neither did the synagogue management want to tackle finding a solution.
"We're not there as a day-care center," Swartz said. "Our commitment is to lifelong learning."
The full-time staff of the larger preschool was uninterested in the part-time hours at the revamped operation, he said.
For Lane-Epstein, 44, starting fresh is a rare opportunity to make concrete her many creative ideas, particularly in Judaica where preschool curriculum is not standardized. To teach kindergarten, she hired Felicia Fields Bennett, a former Morasha Jewish Day School teacher. The class is likely to be no more than 12 children, well under state requirements.
"I'll have my style," Lane-Epstein said, which will include creating a Jewish environment with Israel posters, Hebrew writing and Jewish-themed puzzles. She is equally enthusiastic about enriching the preschool's Jewish content with the effervescent presence of Rabbi Heidi Cohen, whose daughter, 5-year-old Dahvi, is enrolled.
As is her practice during Beth Sholom's summer camp, Cohen will make weekly Shabbat visits to the preschool.