Annapolis’ Congregation Kol Shalom has a solution for those concerned that social distancing is keeping their toddlers too cooped up: The synagogue’s Tree of Life Preschool takes place largely outdoors.
Even before the pandemic, the preschool spent a significant amount of time outside. With special training in the Montessori and Reggio Emilia approaches to education, Allison Charapp, the school’s education director, had put together a preschool program where the children would be outdoors about half of the day, celebrating nature while learning Jewish traditions and prayers.
There “was no real concept other than we knew we wanted a Jewish practicing preschool, and we wanted nature to be involved,” Charapp said.
When social distancing became the norm, the children began spending even more time outside, coming indoors only to eat or during bad weather.
Charapp explained that both the Montessori and Reggio Emilia educational styles allow children to play and explore to learn different concepts. “The children just have a lot more choice in how they approach their own learning than [in] a traditional classroom,” Charapp said. There are zero worksheets and significantly more free time to work with the educational toys and materials of their choice.
Charapp said working with the children can bring her back to the type of innocence and enthusiasm that can fade with adulthood. “We went out to the sukkah this morning, and one little darling came up to me,” Charapp said, “and she was like ‘We get to do our mitzvah!’ And I was like, ‘That’s so cool!’ Because as an adult I was thinking, ‘Do I want to get pictures of this? How do I get that on the Facebook?’ Like, I’m thinking ahead. And they just bring you back to it’s just this beautiful moment.”
Kol Shalom Rabbi Josh Wohl had nothing but praise for Charapp and the job she has done, noting how “she goes above and beyond,” going so far as to drive individual children back to their homes when their parents are unable to pick them up. “She really works hard,” Wohl said. “She puts in 60-, 70-hour weeks, so I think the parents appreciate that, and they appreciate the individual attention.”
While originally from Pittsburgh, Charapp has been a resident of the Annapolis and Washington, D.C., area for the past 30 years, she said, having moved to the area to be with her then-fiancé and now-husband. She recalled being initially approached years ago by the synagogue’s rabbi and several different congregants to apply for the new position.
The synagogue opened its preschool program in September of 2015, following nine long months of planning and work to deliver their labor of love, said Charapp.
It has gone from an initial class of three students to over 30 last year, Wohl said. He added that there is currently a waiting list for parents to enroll their children, with both Jewish and non-Jewish families welcome to apply.
Wohl also felt the preschool helped to reinforce the Kol Shalom brand, which he described as “very focused on environmental issues, focused on nature, and I think we have a really good reputation in the larger community, and a lot of that is due to the preschool.”
“I find out every day how Judaism is so naturally tied to just living,” Charapp said. “It’s so ingrained, it’s so natural. And, through the eyes of the child, I’m seeing more and more ways that God is just this beautiful force … that we are able to work with, and just enjoy life.”