Whenever Debbie Corwin drops off her son at B’nai Israel Congregation’s Schilit Nursery School or picks him up, director Karen Gerton is right there with a smile.
“She’s very visible. She’s just very warm and loving. The kids are her first priority,” said Corwin, whose two older children also went through the preschool program at the Rockville synagogue.
Gerton spent seven years as the teacher in the 3-year-old class. When an opening arose, she applied and became the school’s nursery school director, a position she has held for the past 18 years. On March 8, the synagogue is hosting a celebration of Gerton’s 25 years.
“I am not retiring,” Gerton said emphatically. “I don’t plan to retire for a while.”
During an interview last week, the Potomac resident looked back on her 25 years, stressing that she goes to school, not work, as she doesn’t consider it work.
Gerton grew up in Bethesda, graduated from Winston Churchill High School and then the University of Maryland. She then became a public school teacher in Ohio and New York and the mother of two children. When her kids started preschool, she began teaching at B’nai Israel.
The school has a parent-toddler program for children who are 15 to 24 months old. There are regular morning classes for two-year-olds through prekindergarten. Beginning with this school year, the program went full time to accommodate parents who work. If needed, a child can attend classes from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Enrollment stands at about 125 children.
“Most of our families are member of our synagogue,” Gerton said.
Stacy Ganz Kahn of Potomac sent her twin 8-year-olds and her 7-year-old to B’nai Israel’s preschool and is glad she did. When she first visited a few preschools, she wasn’t sure where to send her children. Then she met with Gerton and the decision was easy, she said. “I really liked her warmth. Karen is just a nice person. She is engaging.”
What makes B’nai Israel’s program special, according to Gerton, is a “strong relationship with our synagogue.” The rabbi, cantor and other staff members help write the curriculum.
“We truly are a family and most of our parents feel that way,” she said. “When you come to B’nai Israel, you find a family.”
She described her program as “play-based and academic,” noting that science, prereading and prewriting are stressed. Sharing and learning how to sit in a circle are also parts of preschool, Gerton said.
The program used to be more play-based, but children now are expected to know more when they enter kindergarten.
“Kindergarten is more like first or second grade was,” she explained. “They better be able to hit the ground running.”
At B’nai Israel, the students enter a program that is “non-stressful, no pressure,” she said. “We want our kids to truly love to come to school.”
Corwin couldn’t ask for more.
“As long as my kids are happy and safe, I’m happy as a mom,” she said. “When I pick them up, they are always happy.”
Judaica plays a role, especially at holiday time, Gerton said, “through cooking, reading and drama. They learn about the different cast of characters.”
She is honored that her school seems to bring families closer to their Jewish roots.
“Lots of family traditions begin at this school,” she noted. “The kids come home, and they want challah, and they tell the parents they want to light the candles and say the Four Questions.”
Gerton fondly recalled one child asking her if she was Jewish. When she replied in the affirmative, the child smiled and declared, “I am Jewish, too.” Then, one by one, the students echoed their affiliation quite joyously.
During her 25 years, the children really haven’t changed that much, she said. “They come to us with 10 toes, 10 fingers and a great smile.”
But what has changed is all the pressure parents feel.
“They want to make sure they are doing everything right,” she pointed out. Gerton reassures parents, telling them, “That’s okay. Kids develop differently.”
If she has one regret, it is that she didn’t start a memory book when she first started at B’nai Israel.
“Working with the kids,” she said, “makes me feel I am doing something worthwhile with my life.”
Besides B’nai Israel, Gerton has spent the past 21 summers working at Camp Louise, where she directs the rookie camp, a one-week session for new campers who are 7 or 8 years old.