“This is the best school ever” and “I love this school” are two testimonials from the 3-year-old class at Morah Carol’s Place, a new preschool in the education wing of Congregation Or VeShalom in Brookhaven.
The preschool is the brainchild of (and is named for) Carol Epstein, whose career in early childhood education spans 36 years.
Originally from Boston and raised in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, Epstein worked at the Village Temple in New York, then moved to Atlanta and worked from 2009 to 2015 at Temple Sinai, which she said was a wonderful experience.
Epstein worked 10 months at Congregation Beth Jacob before opening Morah Carol’s Place at OVS. The preschool is separate from the synagogue, but Epstein makes a point to provide a religious education with an academic focus.
“My whole reason for opening the school is to teach traditional Judaism to all Jews,” Epstein said. “If you’re Jewish, you belong here, period.”
Epstein was raised in an Orthodox household. She has no children or spouse but lives vicariously through the children at her school.
“It is our obligation to fulfill the mitzvah to teach Judaism to our children,” Epstein said. “Our focus is not to make the parents religious, but to raise good, godly Jewish children.”
Her mission is “to get there one Jew at a time.”
When the children are at Morah Carol’s Place, the focus is on middot, or Jewish values. Each child has an individual bucket, and there is a classroom bucket. When a child does a mitzvah, he or she gets a pom-pom, and after a certain number, the child gets a prize.
Epstein also wants the children to understand the consequences of bad behavior, so when a child does something wrong, a pom-pom is deducted from the class bucket to show how the actions of one person affect the entire community.
“It starts with grassroots programs like that,” Epstein said.
The school offers extended hours from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. to assist working parents. The children range from 11 months to 3 years old, but the school will take babies as young as 2 months.
Adam Kofinas, the executive director at OVS, said the hours resonate with him and his wife, who have an 18-month-old daughter enrolled in Morah Carol’s Place.
“It’s unique hours,” Kofinas said. “How many of us struggle with ‘I want my kid to have Jewish values, but what do I do?’ You’re stuck deciding between child care hours and having your kid learn alef-bet and holidays.”
The preschool has 32 children, and eight more are enrolling in January. There are eight classrooms, including a learning center, a music room and an activity room.
The learning center has globes, light tables and tables with headphones to enhance the educational experience. The children learn the alphabet and alef-bet.
Half the staff is Israeli, which makes teaching and learning Hebrew easier, said head teacher Liat Benshabbat, who was born in Israel and raised in Boston. She has known Epstein for more than a decade and said she loves the concept of the preschool.
“It goes much smoother,” Benshabbat said. “We focus on name recognition, building trust in each other and self-motivation.”
The older children learn the days of the week in Hebrew and English and start handwriting with ABCs, then Hebrew letters.
Epstein considers herself an old-school academic. She focuses on lessons with reading and writing in the curriculum and forgoes what she calls the modern way of teaching, such as Montessori and Reggio Emilia, which are options at other Jewish preschools in Atlanta.
“Every one of our teachers puts in the effort. It’s academic-based, and they learn,” Epstein said. “Kids love to learn, and it bothered me they were missing out on academics in early childhood education.”
The children do schoolwide prayer every morning, a Shabbat party on Fridays, yoga with movement through Hebrew, and soon will have the options of ballet, karate and gymnastics.
It’s a dream come true for Epstein to have her own preschool, and on any given day you can find the director beside her staff in a classroom, teaching the children.
“I know every single kid, and I love them all,” Epstein said.