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After 38 years of working with ‘little people,’ Jacks Berman still loves her work

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Imagine spending your entire career doing something you absolutely love to do. That’s the enviable position of Judy Jacks Berman, director of Congregation Beth Shalom’s Rose Family Early Childhood Education Center. She is celebrating 20 years with the school this year.

Jacks Berman’s “career,” began even before she graduated from high school. She and Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff of Congregation B’nai Jehudah, both at age 15, became the youngest senior counselors at the JCC’s Barney Goodman summer day camp. She’s been working with “little people” ever since.

Her professional career began 38 years ago after graduating from KU where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in human development and family life.

She married Steve Berman, now executive director of Congregation Ohev Sholom, the summer before her senior year. After graduation they moved to Los Angeles so Steve could attend graduate school.

Jacks Berman has worked with children ages 6 weeks to 5 years in preschools, as a summer camp director, for HeadStart and in a day care center.

“Very few people get to say that they love going to work every day and I’m still lucky that I do,” she says.

Her fondness for working with children began at Barney Goodman.

“The very first summer I worked as a camp counselor, I had 7-year-old girls and I loved it. They were great, they were fun, I loved them. Then the next summer they put me with 4-year-olds and … I fell in love with that age because they are such sponges and you can just watch them absorb and learn and explore and they’re so excited about anything you do,” she comments. “Their excitement is contagious. So once I worked with the little ones, that was it; it stole my heart and there was never any looking back.”

She says pre-K children are developing rapidly and it’s satisfying to know you’ve had an impact on their lives.

“The best thing about having been here for 20 years is to see the former kids, too, and they all remember me and they all come up and give me hugs. It’s so much fun to see where they are now and to hear about their lives.”

Jacks Berman believes Kansas City is lucky to have four “fabulous” Jewish preschools so that parents have options. But, of course, she thinks Beth Shalom is the best.

“I think our parents have chosen us because they really want an environment that’s warm and inviting and nurturing and where their kids feel like they’re really special, and I feel very fortunate that they have chosen us,” she says “We have the best faculty in the city. Our teachers are second to none and that definitely makes us so amazing. Our families are such committed parents, it really feeds it.”

Dana Schwartz, whose children attended Beth Shalom’s preschool, says Jacks Berman understands the developmental stages of children and the personality of each child.

“Judy has the keen ability to relate to all ages! Her smile, kiss on a child’s head, a huge personalized and loving ‘Boker Tov’ makes each person and parent feel like they are the most special person in the world, all the time, every day,” Schwartz says.

Marla Brockman’s children also attended Beth Shalom’s preschool.

“I was the early childhood education chair for seven years,” she says. “Kansas City has had some excellent preschool directors, but Judy Jacks Berman is the first early childhood professional who has come in and utilized the best practices in her field. She has professionalized the Beth Shalom program and has motivated her already outstanding faculty and staff to ever greater successes.”

Jacks Berman says half of the preschool comprises Beth Shalom congregants and the other half are either members of other congregations or unaffiliated. There are also a few non-Jewish families.

“They understand that we do the Jewish curriculum, so the kids learn all about Jewish holidays, traditions and customs, and they love the fact that  their kids are learning,” she says.

Changes in Preschool

Over the span of her career, Jacks Berman has seen many changes in preschool. She says expectations on preschoolers are much greater now because more is expected from kindergartners and they have to be prepared.

“What they used to expect of kids in first grade is now what they expect of them in kindergarten,” she says. “When I first got in the field 38 years ago, you never expected pre-K kids to read at all. … Now they have sight-word vocabularies that they expect them to come into kindergarten with and they expect them to know all their letters and all the sounds and how to count to 100. Years ago, they expected kids to be able to count to 10, now it’s to 100.”

So in anticipation of these objectives, Beth Shalom has instituted a new curriculum this year for math, literacy, handwriting and science, and in so doing had to increase the hours of preschool as well.

“I felt very strongly that I wasn’t going to give up the play that I felt was so essential and I really wanted there to be plenty of time for all of our Judaica programming, and I wasn’t going to give up any of the arts, so we had to increase our day,” Jacks Berman says. “Luckily, most of our kids have been in preschool for four years, so by pre-K, they really can handle a little longer day just fine. The kids have adjusted to it beautifully; they’re doing great and I feel like I didn’t have to sell my soul or something; I can still do everything that I totally believe in and enhance everything we’re doing.”

The hours for pre-K are now 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to noon on Friday.

Jacks Berman also feels there’s a downside to the greater expectations on children.

“Unfortunately, I think there’s so much more competition in our society and it kind of ripples down to the kids somewhat. The kids aren’t competitive with each other, but the parents are competitive — what do their kids know; what have their kids achieved — and that’s a little bit sad to me that that’s trickled down even to the little kids,” she explains. “But unfortunately our society has gotten much more competitive. That’s probably one of the saddest changes.”

A special anniversary celebration will be held from 9:30 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Feb. 8, at Congregation Beth Shalom to celebrate Jacks Berman’s 20 years and to honor teachers at Beth Shalom’s Rose Family Early Childhood Education Center. Approximately 30-40 teachers (former and current) will attend the special Shabbat event, and alumni of the preschool, ages 5 to 25, are expected to visit with their former teachers and classmates.

“I’m just so honored that the synagogue is recognizing the last 20 years and I’m so thrilled to share this celebration with my teachers and to celebrate with all the kids that have been through the school. It makes it so special for me,” she says.

Jacks Berman and her husband Steve have two sons, Joseph, a rabbi in Boston, and Jeffrey, a lawyer in Los Angeles, whose wife Courtney is a rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College.