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Meet Rabbi Selilah Kalev of Shalem Preschool in South Bay

Today we’d like to introduce you to Rabbi Selilah Kalev.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
As a rabbi and educator and the granddaughter of a Presbyterian minister, I have long believed that the greatest value of religion was the creation of a community of individuals who held similar values. Regardless of age, location, or background, people need to feel connected, cared about, and valued. I converted to Judaism at age twenty-one for just those reasons while continuing to speak at my grandfather’s church and have meaningful discussions and debates over family dinners (we were two-thirds of a joke… a minister and a rabbi were sitting at a table) for the same reasons.

I became an educator to help people find similar connections. I spent 20 years as an educator of lifelong learning at various synagogues across the county. I revitalized religious schools, religious High schools, and adult learning programs. I inspired people to connect with their community, explore their beliefs and challenge their thinking. I deeply loved my role. However, in addition to my Master’s Degree in Education, I had previously taught preschool and this background enabled me to also oversee the preschools in these synagogues. In Philadelphia, I revamped a part-time preschool within my community into a full-time preschool with day-care hours and extend the ages to include infants. This resulted in a $100,000 net turn around for the school.

When my family returned home to California two years ago, I was hired at a nearby preschool to do the same. This was my first role solely as a preschool director and I soon realized that I had found my calling. Never had I had such an intimate, direct effect on families. Preschool is a time of transition and growth for families. My role allows me to support them in every way. Whether it is advice on potty training, dealing with in-laws, or even questions about Judaism I can be there for them as they build their family and home. I gave each family my cell phone number and encouraged them to use it. It was important to me that they each understood that for me we were a community, a family, and that meant that I was there for them if they needed me, whenever that was.

My role as a Preschool Director who is an ordained rabbi is so rare and so impactful, that I now sit on a national committee of rabbis to help coach my colleagues in finding “out of the box” jobs that suit their interests and strengths. But then the vision of the leadership of the school I was running changed. This can happen as most Jewish Preschools are run by the leadership of the synagogue in which they are housed. This was not the vision I had bought into and I made the difficult decision to part ways. Leaving this community full of families, children and staff that I had cared so much about was heartbreaking, but the right choice.

Then the most amazing opportunity came out of the blue. Gill Torf and other South Bay families approached me to open a new school. But not just any school – this would be a school built with our vision in mind. A separate non-profit that would have its own board, a board that would focus solely on the priorities and values of the preschool. It was a dream that I could not pass up.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Even with so much excitement and joy that surrounds our school, there are always challenges when building a new entity. With an extremely short time frame to open the school, the greatest obstacle has been being on a different timeline than those around you – whether it is the government when filing for our non-profit status, the State who needs to license our center, acquiring donors who are reticent giving money for something that doesn’t quite exist, or parents who want to drop off their kids before we can be open, it has been an exercise in patience, understanding, and anticipation.

Also, while Manhattan Beach desperately needs additional preschool “seats,” neighboring, established schools are not always thrilled that you are opening. There is no question that there are more than enough students for the various schools and that we are all each very different – we are not the school for everyone and we just hope that every family finds the best school that fits their needs.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Shalem Preschool – what should we know?
Shalem Preschool is the creation of great timing, hard work and a dream, Congregation Tikvat Jacob Beth Torah of Manhattan Beach hoped to house a preschool in its new building, but it never seemed to be the right time. For years families had been looking forward to the day a school would open in the hopes it would benefit their children… A group of just such families finally decided to take matters into their own hands. Upon learning that Rabbi Selilah Kalev was leaving her current position, a group of parents led by Gill Torf approached her with an idea. The plan was simple: approach CTJ to rent space for an independent, community Jewish preschool. The vision would give the CTJ community what they had always wanted while allowing the parents and Rabbi Kalev to retain control of the vision, the direction and the values of the school.

What makes Shalem different? Shalem is the Hebrew word for wholeness and is a driving force in its mission. This new school wanted to stand out from the rest by ensuring lower ratios (Shalem will follow the recommended ratios that the National Association of Educators of Young Children recommends: 1:6 for 2-year-olds, 1:8 for three-year-olds, and 1:10 for four-year-olds.), a school where the entire child is the focus (mind, body and soul), and where the vision is set by the Director and Board without another entity driving its bottom line (Shalem is an independent non-profit organization).

It has been incredible to watch hard work pay off. The idea for Shalem was conceived in March with the goal of having the school provide care for the children of the families involved by September at the latest. Gill and Rabbi Selilah met with the executive board at CTJ who were so enthusiastic about the idea that they achieved the impossible by facilitating a board meeting, a vote, and a committee to put together the rental agreement all in a matter of weeks. Additionally blessed with an incredible team of volunteers – Gill built a website in a day, the beautiful logo was created in a weekend, and the curriculum and vision were built in a matter of weeks. By mid-April, we were able to announce our launch and by May the classrooms were being renovated.

At Shalem, our children experience a unique and nurturing environment – one where our highly qualified and creative staff guide and facilitate a play-based emergent curriculum that allows our students to build a strong foundation for the skills and tools they will need as they grow both academically and socially. The cornerstone of our school is the development of the mind, body, and soul in a safe, engaging environment that offers opportunities for curiosity and inquiry. We are excited to have our students explore and visit our rooftop garden, practice yoga poses with our Yoga Specialist, and sing and dance in our music program. Each and every class and activity is developed with the intention to foster a love of learning and exploration. Our activities are designed to match each students’ developmental stage while giving special focus on the process and pleasure of discovery, not just the final product.

With two very successful open houses and continuing tours of interested families, the school now stands ready to open with four dedicated staff, a beautiful facility designed with center learning in mind, and a community that is overjoyed with this new addition.

Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
Everyone involved deeply believes that the driving force of our success is to uphold the vision that we are building something precious, something unique, and something that will influence future generations. Each member that has joined our team has brought with them their whole self, their talents, their passion and their time. Our lay leaders, our staff, and our inaugural families have gone well above and beyond what might be expected to make it our school come together in such a short time.

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Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

1 Comment

  1. Renee Ryzak

    July 27, 2018 at 20:32

    Wonderful presentation Selilah! You are amazing.
    Congratulations for the Mitzvah you have created. Lucky community!
    Best wishes,

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