Sunday, Jun. 16, 2019

Choosing Values Beyond Cultural Diversity

By Natalie Ferd · January 13, 2014

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Every parent wishes the absolute best for their child.   Meet a Russian Jewish parent and you will realize that this statement is ever so true.  Many of us, Jews of Russian descent, are 1st generation immigrants with a varying degree of assimilation and integration into American way of life.  We want to provide our children with the greatest opportunities for flourishing and achieving success as we understand it.  From the moment the child is born, he or she is surrounded by a countless number of developmental toys and soft books.   While the baby is still mastering his/her walking abilities, we are already busy planning activities to nurture development in other areas: infant music introduction, mommy and me sessions and toddler reading games to name a few.  Some parents invest in sports while others gravitate towards fostering artistic skills.  There is a myriad of approaches towards discipline, healthy eating habits and many other aspects of parenting.  However there is one area where we all stand united:  our children are to receive an excellent education and we are willing to go above and beyond to secure that. 

It is time to introduce myself.  My name is Natalie.  I live in South Brooklyn.  My 8-year old daughter attends 3rdgrade at Mazel Day School. Our relationship with Mazel began in September of 2007 when my daughter was approximately 2 and half years of age.   My husband and I researched a few daycare establishments located in our area.  Only in Mazel did I see such friendly and accommodating staff.  Looking at the calm and smiling faces of the teachers and their associates, I felt at ease leaving my precious little child, who was still in the process of building her basic language skills, with them.  We were also attracted by  the small group arrangement (up to 15 children per group), a bilingual Russian-English setting and the option to for half day care at reduced premium. 

We enrolled our daughter in the youngest pre-nursery division.   As little as she was, the adjustment went through smoothly thanks to the loving and nurturing atmosphere in her classroom.  At the time the only language my daughter spoke was Russian but this was absolutely not a problem as there is enough bilingual staff in Mazel to make Russian-speaking children feel stress free while seamlessly introducing them to English.  As we know, children are exceptionally quick learners: my daughter had a fluent understanding of English by the end of her 1styear in Mazel. 

Two years went by quickly.  Our girl grew to like her class, the teachers, especially her pre-nursery teacher associate.  Days were filled with songs (mornings at Mazel begin with singing English and Hebrew songs), fun educational games, outdoor activities (Mazel Day Care has a private playground yard) and learning the basics about Jewish holidays and customs.  There were also trips to places such as the local fire/police stations, Children’s Museum and the like.  Fridays were special:  in the spirit of Shabbos the children would be involved in baking their own personal mini challahs and watch the teachers light the candles.

As our daughter was aging out of daycare age we started thinking about her pre-K options.  We were very pleased to see our daughter happy and content with her school yet we were wondering if the loving and comforting atmosphere at Mazel would be too sheltering for a 4-year old who is a typical representative of an emerging population of Russian-Jewish children residing in South Brooklyn and surrounded by a cohort of overly attentive, hovering babushkas, aunts, babysitters and etc.  We wanted our child to be introduced to the “real world” of public education where she could embrace diversity and expand her horizons.   We decided to send her to the elementary public school with a solid academic reputation which – fortunately for us – was located within our school district and very close to home.  Our daughter had mixed feelings.  On one hand she was sad to leave her old favorite school, but on the other she was happy to join her best friend in the new school.  There was also the excitement of a new adventure in a little person’s life.  And so we were off to a new start.

As time went on, we began facing the reality and our enthusiasm gradually wore off.  It all started with the concept of cultural diversity that we were so eager for our child to embrace.  While public schools do an excellent job of educating kids on every possible holiday and custom of any religion that exists under the sun, I quickly realized that my daughter no longer saw anything particularly special about Jewish holidays.  Christmas and Chanukah felt equally important, Halloween was being confused with Purim, Friday was just a regular school day and so the holy concept of Shabbos was completely abandoned.  Gone were the challah, candle lighting and Hebrew song singing.   Make no mistake, children  in Mazel learn about Valentine’s Day, Martin Luther King, Thanksgivings and other important American secular holidays.   But the prime focus is placed on Jewish holidays and their history which was always dear to our hearts.

Thanks to Mazel, my daughter was now fluent in English and experienced no stress all too familiar to the children who attend all-Russian daycare programs prior to enrollment in public school.  However I realized that by now my little chatter box was so comfortable with English that she no longer needed Russian to express herself.  Of course we kept on making sure there was plenty conversations in Russian at home, but nevertheless we felt like we were on the fast track to failure in this department.  Unlike Mazel, public schools do not teach Russian to elementary students and so we had to approach a solution to this language dilemma on our own.   Another setback was the size of the class in the public school: an average of 24 or 25 kids are overseen by one teacher as opposed to the maximum number of 15 kids with two teachers in classroom at Mazel.  On many occasions I have found myself comparing Mazel to the public system of education and concluded that Mazel has many advantages: smaller classrooms; individualized approach where homework is sometimes tailored to suit needs/interests of a particular student; concept of mitzvot (good deeds) instilled in pupils, be it helping with home chores, sharing or calling a sick fellow student to wish him/her well (yes, this is a common practice at lower division of Mazel school).  But most of all our family missed the warm, personal atmosphere where each kid is treasured and cared for and taught to care of others and be a true mensch (a person of integrity and honor). 

Soon after my daughter graduated from her kindergarten class, it became clear to us that we need Mazel now more than ever.  Most importantly, our daughter admitted that she was the happiest there and this put the end to our contemplations.  We re-enrolled her back in Mazel on September of 2011 as a 1stgrader where she felt instantly at home despite the fact that she missed an entire year of studying Hebrew and Russian (these disciplines are taught in Mazel since kindergarten).  Thanks to small classes and constant support from the teachers, she was able to close her knowledge gap in a reasonable timeframe.

  Now that she is back to Mazel, our child is able to enjoy the many wonderful things this school has to offer: progressive learning approach (also practiced by a number of leading Manhattan schools); studying 3 languages (English, Hebrew, Russian); warm and respectful relationship with her classmates; community work (be it voluntary park cleaning, toy drive or visiting nursing home to cheer up the elderly.)  And we, the parents, are once again given the chance to appreciate the merits of this school: attentiveness of staff, healthy food choices, open-minded attitude of the teachers and their willingness to collaborate with the parents in order to solve issues, countless initiatives (health month, literacy month, no-bullying policy to name a few).   Mazel is not just a private school.  It is a dynamic and well-balanced community of highly competent teachers and intelligent parents, mostly young professionals in their 30-s and 40-s who share similar view and values.  The synergistic effect of this strong and vital community: the excellent education every Russian Jewish parent wishes for their child.

Mazel Day School will be hosting an OPEN HOUSE for prospective parents interested to learn more about our early childhood preschool program (ages 2-5) on Wednesday, January 22nd at 6:30 pm. You are invited to discover the difference a quality, nurturing preschool can make in the life of a young child! Tour our classrooms, learn about our program and educational philosophy, meet teachers and current parents. To RSVP for this event, please email


 Natalie Ferd/Golub lives in South Brooklyn with her husband and their 2 children.  Her husband is an active member of F.R.E.E. of Brighton Beach synagogue.  Her youngest child attends Mazel Day school where  Natalie serves on board of Mazel Parent Association.
Natalie  is a participant of the Parent to Parent initiative of The Jewish Education Project, which promotes parent leadership in Jewish Day Schools.

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