If you have entered Temple Emanuel of South Hills any time in the last 30 years, you may have been greeted by Nan Simon.
That’s a good thing.
Never mind that her title is director of the congregation’s Early Childhood Development Center. She has been a smiling, welcoming face of Temple Emanuel for three decades.
“People feel welcomed when they come into our school,” Simon said. “We’re the face of the temple. It goes a long way.”
After growing the school from 78 to 236 children, and introducing myriad of innovative programs, including the popular theme-based Imagination Station, Simon will be retiring this May.
“She has certainly been invaluable, to put it mildly,” said Eric Bernstein, president of Temple Emanuel. “She is certainly a fixture here, and has created a model for the community as to what a program should be. She helped our program succeed, and deserves the credit for that.”
In fact, the changes and innovations Simon brought to the program were so vast that the congregation changed the name of the school in 2010 from Temple Emanuel Nursery School to the Temple Emanuel Early Childhood Development Center in order to reflect its full-service offerings.
In addition to classes for toddlers, three-year-olds, and four-year-olds, Simon introduced “first experience” classes for babies, pre-kindergarten transition classes, a kindergarten enrichment program, and Jewish enrichment. There are monthly movement, music, and library classes, in addition to art, cooking, and drama enrichment classes. And the list goes on.
Simon grew up in Pittsburgh, and attended Taylor Allderdice High School and Duquesne University, doing post-graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State. She taught special education at the Pathfinder School before becoming a pre-school teacher at Temple Emanuel when her own daughter was in the 4-year-old class there. She was promoted to director after the departure of the former director, Vi Bikerman.
On her watch, Temple Emanuel’s preschool has become one of the largest, and most respected programs in Pittsburgh and the surrounding suburbs.
“The reputation of the program in the South Hills is impeccable,” said Jill Hicks, a parent at the school who serves as one of three PTA officers. “When I visited, Nan gave me a tour initially, and not only did she make me feel comfortable, she made my daughter feel comfortable. My daughter was shy, and Nan made her feel comfortable, and safe, and excited about learning.”
Simon has filled the school to capacity, having recently absorbed five children from nearby Beth El of the South Hills’ now defunct early childhood center.
While only 25 to 30 percent of the children attending the school are Jewish, Simon has insured that Jewish content and a Jewish sensibility permeate the program. The children celebrate Shabbat, the Jewish holidays, and sing the hamotzi prayer before snacks. Having children from all backgrounds join in Jewish rituals fosters understanding in the community, Simon said.
“Hopefully, that’s my legacy,” she said. “That there will be a lot more understanding of Jewish values.”
Following retirement, Simon hopes to volunteer at Temple Emanuel, and maybe at Magee-Womens Hospital, cuddling infants, or maybe with the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council.
“It will be something with children,” she said, “because that’s what I do.”
Temple Emanuel is currently in the process of finding a successor for Simon. Bernstein hopes to have someone in place prior to Simon’s retirement so that she can help train the new director.
“It will be a big change,” he said of Simon’s upcoming departure. “It will take some time to adjust. But with the help of Nan, who has graciously agreed to help, we hope to have as few hiccups as possible.”
For Simon, it’s been a great run.
“It’s the best job in the world,” she said. “I’ve been so lucky for 30 years.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)