Experience at Beth El Nursery School (BENS) / Congregation Beth El in Berkeley?

I'm interested in learning more about Beth El Nursery School (BENS) in Berkeley, as most of the reviews on BPN are from a few years ago. If you have experience with the school, I'd love to hear about what the program was like for your child(ren) and family! Did you find that the program was academically oriented (such as learning how to read/write, which we're not looking for)? What sort of focus (or not) did they place on social emotional development (learning how to be in touch with others and yourself, etc.)? We love the idea of a Jewish preschool, but wonder if the focus on Judaism might take away from the school's ability to focus on other things, like social emotional development - do you have insights on that front?

Also, what is the community of families like? Does BENS tend to be a place where families form friendships that they maintain for a long time? Do most kids tend to go on to hebrew school / camp together? Anything else we should know? 

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My daughter is in her third and (sadly) last year at BENS. We have LOVED it there! My daughter is happy to go every day and feels part of a wonderful community.

The teachers are warm and nurturing and thoughtful in their approach to the students and the curriculum. The community is wonderful and I'm sure we'll be friends with some for our whole lives. Many of the kids continue to Camp Kee Tov and Kadima (Beth El's religious school) so, even though they'll go to different schools in the fall (we're in different districts/Berkeley zones, and a couple are going to private school), we will still get to connect. I LOVE the outdoor classroom as well as the preschool's use of the meadow and Live Oak Park across the street. I was intrigued by forest schools before enrolling, and love the balance of indoor/outdoor time that BENS provides. The students have a special indoor space, plus lots of outdoor time, in rain or shine!

Jodi has been the director these three years we've been at BENS, and taught there for years before. She is incredibly devoted to the program and families. She creates wonderful family activities (hike, shabbat dinner, work party, holiday celebrations) that help build the community and expand the classroom into non-school hours. She is available for questions and concerns always.

As for your questions:

-Did you find that the program was academically oriented (such as learning how to read/write, which we're not looking for)? What sort of focus (or not) did they place on social emotional development (learning how to be in touch with others and yourself, etc.)?

The program is play-based and emergent, not academic. In this final year where my daughter is, many of the kids have shown interest in letters and numbers, so the teachers are responsive to that, but don't push it. One of my favorite things in the classroom is a poster they made one year with letters made from twigs!

-We love the idea of a Jewish preschool, but wonder if the focus on Judaism might take away from the school's ability to focus on other things, like social emotional development - do you have insights on that front?

On the contrary, I believe the teachers use Jewish values (Kavod, meaning respect, kehillah, meaning community) to teach social-emotional skills. They also use tools like calm-down jars, allow for students to move themselves to an alone space when they need to, and others, and teach communication, advocacy, self-knowledge, and listening.

We love BENS and we hope you will too!

Our daughter is in her second year at BENS, and we are very happy overall. We are not a religious family, but liked the idea of a culturally Jewish setting that would teach our daughter about holidays, traditions, etc. Their approach is very much play-based and from an adult perspective it just seems like nothing but fun. That being said, my daughter has learned so much while there. For example, I don't think they are going out of their way to teach her to read and write, but the kids have expressed an interest in letters and so they have found ways to expose them to recognizing letters, and she can now write her name and many of her friend's names, etc. The teachers and administration are very focused on social and emotional development, and I think they are equipping our daughter and her classmates with lots of great tools and strategies for being a good friend and dealing with feelings, conflict, needs, etc. One thing I'm really happy about at BENS is the community it fosters. We didn't know any families at the school or synagogue when we joined, and we have since made several close family friends. The school plans several activities throughout the year to help you meet other families, some of which are for all ages like shabbat dinners, and some are for just your child's classroom. We feel very lucky to be able to part of the BENS community and definitely recommend it. 


My son A. just started at the 2's class (Gan D'vorim) last September, but we are loving the school so far.  The 2's class (and I would think the whole school) is play-based rather than academically oriented -- this was something we specifically wanted and looked for.  It's fun when A comes home with stories of walks to the garden where he saw a potato bug, a dragonfly, a ladybug, and a hummingbird.  And A. definitely loves school -- we are frequently late in the mornings, and my one tried and true method to get A. to pick up the pace is to say that if we are any later we may not be able to go to school at all that day. 

As for social emotional development, I think this is one of the strongest aspects of the program.  The teachers really model the patience and empathy I want A. to learn, and I also appreciate that they work with each child's particular temperament.  For example, A. can be somewhat cautious and slow-to-warm, and for a while didn't want to participate in the 5-10 minutes of circle time.  The teachers never pressured him to participate; instead, they realized that A. likes to have his own "place," so they taped his picture to a spot in the circle and now A. happily joins everyone else at circle time at his designated "spot."  I also appreciate that the teachers really listen to your concerns as a parent -- at one point early on during the year I mentioned to one of the teachers that I worry that A. is not assertive or social enough, and ever since then the teachers have often had little stories for me at pick-up about how A. is progressing in interacting with his peers.

Regarding your specific question of whether the focus on Judaism might take away from the focus on social emotional development, I feel I have to start with the caveat that we are an interfaith family and I am not Jewish.    But from my perspective the way the school incorporates Judaism into the curriculum fosters rather than detracts from social emotional development -- self-awareness and consideration for others and the environment are ideas that are woven into the way BENS celebrates many of the Jewish holidays.  I can't say how much A. actually "gets" it at 3 years old -- the favorite thing he came home with about Passover was the Pharaoh saying, "No no no, I will not let you go," so....  But I hope eventually it will sink in.  :)

I like the other families in A.'s class very much as well -- it's an interesting but unpretentious group.  I can't say my husband and I frequently hang out with other families outside of school/school events/birthday parties, but that's probably more due to our being introverts and having an infant.  (I have really good friends living near us that we only see maybe once or twice a year.).  Plus we are still relative newcomers to the school -- I do see other parents/families who are good friends outside of school -- so hopefully someone else will chime in re what it's like a couple of years down the road.

Please don't hesitate to reach out if you would like to chat more.

Our daughter is in the 3's at BENS. She's been at the school for only a few months, and we've been really happy with the way it's working out. She was previously in a Jewish daycare in another state, so there's been a lot of nice consistency in the curriculum and themes to the education. We practice Judaism at home, so for us the exposure to those facets are a plus. It's fun to see her come home singing the same songs that we learned when we were kids.

The teachers and coordinator are excellent, very hands-on and caring. There's a been a number of extracurricular events this year, like weekend nature hikes or visits to the farm, that show both that the staff is very dedicated and involved, and also fosters connections between the families of the kids.

I have to say I think the other families of the class have been the most exceedingly positive aspect of the class. They've really gone out of their way to make us feel welcome, and I feel like we're building some strong relationships that will continue as the kids get older. I get the sense that most kids do go onto participate in summer camp. Hebrew day school is a bit more up-in-the-air, given how few options there are around, unfortunately...

I'd +1 the other comments here about the curriculum not being overwhelmingly academic. It's play based, a lot of art projects. Kids learn to cooperate by building structures, share toys, etc. They're currently watching caterpillars turn into butterflies in the classroom, and our daughter has somehow along the way learned to count to 5 in Spanish. During Passover they learn the story of baby Moses, and relate that to the younger siblings that are being born of kids in the class. I wouldn't say that Judaism is a primary focus of the education, but is instead a sort of scaffold to teach the same sorts of curriculum that you'd find at other schools.