An innovative haredi preschool

"Progressive education in the haredi world is very tricky. Any culture change is scary. Even the word progressive is threatening.”

Malka and Ephraim Greenblatt and family (photo credit: THE GREENBLATTS)
Malka and Ephraim Greenblatt and family
(photo credit: THE GREENBLATTS)
When Ephraim Greenblatt wants to learn about something, he reads a book. And another – until he becomes something of an expert on a topic. That’s how he learned to bake sourdough bread, brew beer in preparation for opening a craft beer brewery and became a leader in early childhood education in the haredi sector.
In an interview with In Jerusalem, Ephraim and his wife, Malka, who runs a high-end wig consignment shop, both invoked the influence their parents had on their way of relating to the world.
Malka said her parents were “more out-of-the-box than most people.” She and her siblings were “pushed to do new and interesting things.” One result of this kind of innovation is the Yahalom School in the Givat Hamivtar neighborhood.
The Greenblatts brought Yahalom into existence 18 months ago, as a result of what they wanted to give their first child, who was two-and-a-half at the time. Looking at local preschool options, they realized that most weren’t keeping up with the newest research about how young children learn.
From reading books about the Montessori method of early childhood education, Ephraim became convinced that the ages of zero to six are important years in development. He was dismayed to learn that most educational systems don’t start real education until age six.
“Many programs are glorified babysitting,” Ephraim commented.
“It was shocking how few teachers we interviewed had read anything about cutting-edge educational research.”
Malka had concerns about the standard educational system.
“Kids are put in a box; the most amazing part of the kid gets cut away and young people lose their zest. Education becomes ‘memorize this and spit it back on the test.’” The Greenblatts get animated when they talk about the educational philosophy that guides Yahalom.
“We spend so much time trying to fix people when so much of what went wrong happened in early childhood,” Ephraim mused.
“What if we stopped breaking kids?” He described the current educational model as a factory that sees children as empty vessels to be filled with information.
“The factory model is failing, even outside the Jewish world. What you’re interested in and what turns you on is not driving education in the factory model.”
By contrast, “When we learn the things that we’re driven to learn, it’s a whole other experience of learning.”
Malka is sensitive to how their critiques might sound.
“We don’t want to bash the current system of education. We just feel that there could be more. Curiosity gets cut off. People’s specialness gets cut off. We don’t think we know everything. Why are we doing this? Because we’re crazy. We don’t claim to be revolutionary models who know everything. We read a lot. For us, this is a dream. We’re going to try to do something about it.”
Malka explained that they “chose Montessori as a base for our program, but we are integrating other programs, such as emotional literacy and dramatic play. We care about children having a certain amount of autonomy. Not everything they are going to learn in life will come from a teacher. We give children tools to learn on their own.
“The energy in the classroom is amazing. Anyone who sees what goes on by us realizes how serious it is and the level of the program. We’ve begun attracting people from outside [the neighborhood].”
One crucial idea that guides the couple’s educational philosophy comes from the work of Stanford University psychology professor Dr. Carol Dweck, who teaches that there are two mind-sets with which we approach the world.
“The growth mind-set means I believe I can get better and I can improve,” Ephraim explained, “while the fixed mind-set assumes that things are the way they are and can’t be changed. My parents gave me a growth mind-set.”
Malka elaborated, “A fixed mind-set is limiting. It makes people conclude ‘I can’t do anything beyond my IQ.’ But there is a definite concept of growing your brain.”
How did this young couple, married just five years, new immigrants with zero background in early childhood education, start a school so innovative that other schools in the haredi sector send their teachers to observe? Ephraim answers with a laugh.
“A combination of recklessness and stubbornness. We started with ads in the local papers. A week before school started, we advertised for teachers, students and a classroom. We started in someone’s living room. Three kids enrolled. We had six kids by the first week and eight by Succot.”
They were driven by a vision, but Ephraim realizes, “What we did is not reasonable. We invested so much of our time and all our money.”
In short order, they rented an apartment and gutted it to create Yahalom. Ephraim did much of the work himself.
That first year they “had a big, beautiful room that was super expensive to run. We were funding it with our own money. It became prohibitively expensive.”
The low tuition does not come close to covering expenses. Unable to bear the costs, the Greenblatts coordinated their efforts with the Jerusalem municipality, which allowed them to open in an unused preschool building for their second year. In effect, the Yahalom School currently operates a municipal preschool in Jerusalem’s haredi educational sector. The city provides some funding for expenses and the Yahalom School operates on the city’s schedule.
Now into the second year of the Yahalom School, the Greenblatts realized that they need more financial support, and recently launched a crowdfunding campaign. Although they have not yet reached their financial goal, Ephraim said that the campaign has engendered lots of other support. “The parent body has come forward to offer support, saying, ‘This is great. How can we help you?’ “It’s been surprisingly lonely in terms of support. There has been endless stress. This is not a [for-profit] business. We’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars [of our own money]. With the crowdfunding campaign, we gave a voice to that support for us. That was empowering.”
The Montessori classroom of 14 boys and girls is run in English, but the Greenblatts plan to bring in a Hebrew-language component.
The students come from Anglo homes in the haredi sector.
Recruiting more Israeli children is a goal.
Ephraim notes, “Progressive education in the haredi world is very tricky. Any culture change is scary. Even the word progressive is threatening.”
That reality notwithstanding, in addition to keeping the school open in Jerusalem, the couple wants to create a replicable model of progressive education.
When considering the possibility of their future success, they turn once again to the lessons they learned from their parents: Just do it! Maybe you’ll succeed. Maybe you’ll fail. But you’ll learn a lot along the way.