While many preschools were struggling to stay open and keep students during the pandemic, the preschool of Beth El at Federal Hill doubled its enrollment.
It was largely thanks to the work of the director, Stephanie Ziman, 46, who recognized the need for Jewish education in downtown Baltimore, where Beth El is the only Jewish preschool.
“The importance of bringing Jewish education down here is enormous,” Ziman said. “There’s a need for it and there’s a want for it.”
Ziman cultivates intentional relationships with families, which she believes has helped to increase the enrollment.
“I make it a point to connect with the parents,” Ziman said. “It should be a warm and welcoming place.”
Ziman grew up in Owings Mills, where she currently lives with her family. She was in one of the first preschool classes at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC, attended Hebrew school at Beth Israel Congregation and became involved in BBYO as a teenager.
She realized how strong her Jewish community was growing up when she went to college, where there were far fewer Jewish students.
“That was very interesting to me growing up going to public school and then being surrounded by a good amount of Jewish community and then going to college where your perception is that it is going to be the same but it obviously wasn’t,” Ziman said.
She received an undergraduate degree in family studies and then worked as a social worker and at a nursing home. After forming a meaningful relationship with the only Jewish resident at the nursing home, Ziman decided she wanted to work with the Jewish community.
“Little experiences started building up, and I knew that I wanted to be involved in the Jewish community in some capacity,” she said.
After having her two daughters, Ziman went back to school and received a master’s in Jewish education from the Baltimore Hebrew Institute.
She then taught at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School for nearly 15 years, all the while ensuring that her daughters received the same kind of Jewish education that she and her husband had growing up.
Her experiences of being a teacher and parent in the Jewish community showed her that “the value of giving these opportunities and experiences to children is enormous.”
Ziman went into her position as director of the Beth El preschool, where she is entering her third year, with this mindset. In her role as director, Ziman builds relationships with families, checks in on the classrooms, works with the Macks Center for Jewish Education and develops Judaic curriculum for preschools.
While there are many local synagogues and Jewish organizations in Owings Mills, that isn’t the case in downtown Baltimore.
“There are a lot of families that are Jewish or one parent is Jewish and they still want these opportunities and experiences for their kids,” she said. “It’s been a mission and goal of mine to provide the community down here.”
The pandemic has required the preschool to make some adjustments. They’ve held Shabbat services in the park and a candle lighting for Chanukah in their backyard. While the preschool would typically host guest teachers to lead music or Hebrew lessons, they haven’t been able to have extra teachers in the classrooms due to COVID-19 restrictions.
This means that Ziman has been able to get into the classrooms more. She’ll read books or integrate Hebrew words into lessons.
“When I have the moments that I get to be in the classroom, that’s always a bonus,” she said. “When you’ve been in the classroom for so many years and then you come out, you get a rush going back in.”
From her years as a teacher, Ziman recognizes the need for individualized, experiential learning.
“I believe in working with children how they each learn,” she said.
Her vision has paid off. This year, the preschool is nearly at its capacity and has a waitlist for enrollment.
“I’m beside myself with joy and happiness,” Ziman said. “I’m honored because when you believe in something and start seeing the fruits of your labor, it really is important.”