Beth El Congregation of the South Hills has announced that it will shut down its BENS Early Childhood Learning Center, effective Dec. 24.
Low enrollment numbers have made running the center economically untenable for the congregation, according to Miles Kirshner, president of Beth El.
“Demographic trends in our community have made it unsustainable,” Kirshner said, noting that there just are not enough preschool age children in the South Hills to support the number of programs currently offered in the area.
The congregation plans to roll out a new program next year that it expects will better serve the current needs of its members.
Beth El Nursery School was established in 1969, and for many years, under the tenure of director Georgia Hernandez, was known as one of the premiere nursery schools in the South Hills.
Enrollment began to decline after Hernandez retired in 2002. By 2008, the school saw a “significant decline in registration,” according to a letter sent to congregants last week signed by Kirshner and Beth El’s executive vice president, Andy Schaer. Schaer is also a board member of the Chronicle.
In 2010, Beth El converted BENS from a pre-school model to a fully accredited, all-day program, hoping to meet the needs of families with two working parents. The re-vamping of the program, however, did not generate a significant increase in enrollment.
“We are well below the level of enrollment necessary to come close to a break even,” Kirshner said.
Only 12 out of the 50 children currently enrolled in the center are children of Beth El members, according to Kirshner.
In an effort to save the program, BENS entered into a shared services agreement with the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh last year, with the intention of ultimately merging their respective childcare centers. Low enrollment numbers at BENS, however, prevented the merger, Kirshner said.
“There wasn’t light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “We felt it was no longer fair to subsidize the program to the extent we were doing. The sustained losses were unacceptable to Beth El. The board unanimously felt it was time to quit.”
Beth El plans to continue its relationship with the JCC, and develop some supplemental Jewish value-based programming for preschoolers and their families, differing from the child care center model, Kirshner said.
“We’re currently searching and committed to find ways to achieve the critical goals of providing Jewish connection to our preschool families,” he said. “Our new program will be rolled out as early as January, and it will be designed to involve Rabbi Alex [Greenbaum] and Beth El in the lives of families with young children.”
The new programming, which is still in the development stage, will introduce something that is currently lacking in the South Hills, according to Schaer.
“From our perspective, it’s about serving the community in a way that helps the community, not in a way that is duplicative,” he said. “It will be programming based on Jewish values in a way that’s not currently developed in the South Hills.”
While Beth El’s collaboration with the JCC did not lead to a merger of the two child care programs, it did help cement a relationship that will benefit the South Hills Jewish community, according to Brian Schreiber, president and CEO of the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh.
“I think ultimately, the partnership piece was wonderful,” Schreiber said. “We worked very well together as a congregation and the JCC, and we will continue to work with congregations to enhance Jewish life together. The good news is I think it did strengthen our relationship.”
Beth El is currently working with each BENS family to find a new early learning program for each child, and to ease everyone’s transition.
“Right now, we are focused on managing the transition for our children to make sure they and their families will land softly through all of this,” Schaer said.
Hernandez, who taught at BENS for 11 years before becoming its director in 1985, said that she was proud of the program she helped build at Beth El.
“I have not been back in years, but still feel I could walk in there and know where every toy, every book, every block and every chair is,” she said in an email to the Chronicle. “I wasn’t sad when I heard the news because I know all good things must pass. More, I felt like it was the passing of an icon — a time to celebrate all the good we did. Beth El Nursery School was known far and wide for its excellent philosophy, inclusiveness and nurturing environment.”
“So, while I wish it could go on forever, my chest bursts with pride that I played a part in Beth El Nursery School for 28 years and was the director for 17 years,” she concluded. “It is now time to look at what was accomplished and feel proud. I hope everyone involved with the school does. I know I do.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)