Last fall, we invited educators to submit a nomination for their schools “Parent of Valor.” We received many submissions and were extremely impressed by the level of dedication, creativity, and generosity of the parents in these schools. This week, I am pleased to introduce Anna Pervukhin, a parent at the Osher Early Learning Center, a bilingual Jewish preschool in Washington Heights.
This is what Elisheva Kirschenbaum, director and educator at Osher, wrote in her nomination letter:
“There is a parent in my school, Anna Pervukhin, who is a criminal-defense lawyer by trade, but is doing things for the school that go beyond any limitations. Our school is Reggio-Emilia inspired and parental involvement is abundant, but she has taken this school to heart and is giving it her professionalism and energy. […] She does all this because it's important to her that her children get a good academic education in an environment that is warmly Jewish and socially progressive. With her help and the help of the rest of our parents and staff, Osher Early Learning Center is that place.”
First off, could you tell me a bit about your own history and how you came to choose Osher Early Learning Center for your children's Jewish education?
My parents, grandmother, and I emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1980. We settled in Cherry Hill, NJ, and I attended Kellman Academy, a Solomon Schechter day school. Growing up, my family was not religious, but my grandfather, whom I never met, used to be observant. After losing most of his family in the Holocaust, he dialed back pretty far on the Judaism, gave my mom a non-Jewish-sounding last name instead of his own, and encouraged her to keep quiet about her background. When she was about 12, though, he swore her to secrecy and taught her the Shema. I think my mother wanted to honor my grandfather’s memory by giving me a “real” Jewish education, and it must have stuck, because I ended up pretty committed to Judaism. Now, I am determined to give my own children the freedom to be fully Jewish, too, which my parents and grandparents were basically robbed of. To me, Jewish education represents that freedom.
I learned about Osher’s dual language Hebrew/English preschool before it even opened for business and my husband and I met with the director, Elisheva Kirshenbaum, at her husband’s shul (synagogue). We had been looking at a lot of preschools downtown, but as soon as Elisheva opened her mouth, we knew we were sending our children to her future program. She spoke about kids and their education and especially their Jewish education in such a radiantly joyful way, and made it all sound like such a fun adventure. And that’s exactly how it turned out!
Can you share any “Aha” moments that affirmed for you that the school was the right choice?
The kids are supposed to daven [pray] every morning at circle time, but some of them wander. Early on, I was struck how, instead of telling further flung children to return, the teachers strived to make davening extra entertaining to entice the kids to wander back, or at least watch and listen from a distance. I also loved how the kids were trusted with “real” activities. They get to play with random objects, like disassembled flashlights or a box of dowels, and they get to use real tools, like screwdrivers. (It’s all under very close supervision). The teachers aren’t scared of the kids making a colossal mess, either. And I recall one time; they let the kids identify letters from a real Torah scroll. Children are really respected and trusted in a way I’ve never seen anywhere else.
Can you describe your motivation for partnering with your friend from the Science Museum and focusing on the Science and Art class for the children?
It started in 2012. Osher encourages all the parents to come in once a year to lead an “enrichment activity” – usually it’s something related to the parent’s jobs, like bringing in a doctor’s bag or playing a musical instrument, but I’m a criminal defense lawyer, so I thought maybe I’d skip that and do an art project instead. To make a long story short, it became a regular thing. I remember one time, I brought in some pipettes and paint, and the kids mixed all these different colored liquids and played around with the pipettes and wanted to know why the water went up when you squeezed the bulb. They had all these theories about it. The classes became more and more about science in a very organic way.
It really makes sense if you think about it– at the most foundational level, science and art are both about close observation and experimentation, and by bringing the two together, you can make science more appealing and play-like for everyone involved.
So this summer, I decided to get more organized and reached out to my friend Rebecca Taylor, who’s the educational program coordinator at The American Museum of Natural History and has a real passion for teaching kids about science, and my dad, who’s an art professor. They both inundated me with books and references and helpful advice. Then I wrote up the curriculum and worked with the director and the individual teachers to integrate it into the existing program, which revolves around Jewish holidays and Torah readings. So, for example, when the kids had a lengthy unit about Shabbat, they practiced using analogue thermometers to measure temperature, melted a bunch of wax, made Shabbat candles, and played with cooling wax. The Science and Art class was originally aimed at Osher’s oldest kids, but the young two’s, including my younger son, have started to participate, too. Their experiments and art projects are considerably more “freestyle,” but the point is that just about any kid can get something from this type of program.
Do you have any suggestions for other parent leaders who want to advance their institution?
You can support your Hebrew school a lot just by showing up. It doesn’t matter exactly what you do, as long as you contribute some positive energy. The details will take care of themselves.
What was one of the best outcomes to your participation in helping the school design a new look to their website? How are the social media upgrades changing the school environment? Parents? Educators?
As you can see, I am really excited about the school and have been working to help spread the word. Redesigning the website (www.osherelc.com) and raising our social media profile are a part of that effort, and it seems to be working. The school has grown from 8 students to 24 students in just two years. It’s hard to say, though, how much of that is due to better visibility on the internet and how much is just word of mouth.
Shariee Calderone is a Communal Education Consultant at The Jewish Education Project and has coordinated and piloted multiple adult learning and family engagement initiatives with community and synagogue partners. Recently Shariee has been supporting her department and colleagues through new and creative ways to use social media to help tell the story of the innovations and experimentations taking place in early childhood.