A VISION, A VARIANCE AND HUNDREDS OF HAPPY CHILDREN by Tamara Steckler
One woman’s journey to make the world a nicer place, one child at a time.
In 1995, with a desire to enhance Judaism in the Maplewood/South Orange community where he was raised, Sholom Bogomilsky and his wife, Frumie Bogomilsky, commuted from their home in Brooklyn to assist with the leadership of the Beth Ephraim-Maplewood Jewish Center, a small orthodox congregation housed in a dwelling on the corner of Parker Avenue and Prospect Street.
In 2000, the couple bought a residence right up the block with a dental office attached and moved in with their growing family. One variance and a renovation later, in 2003, KinderGan was born, a single room preschool created to provide children with an educational experience based on Jewish morals and values. While Rabbi Bogomilsky led the congregation in addition to his C.P.A. day job, Frumie focused on KinderGan, at that time a half-day preschool program attached to her home, which prided itself in creating a warm and welcoming environment aimed at giving each child the tools to succeed.
Fast forward to today. Just across the street from the Bogomilsky residence is a brand new, impressive state-of-the art-structure housing the Maplewood Jewish Center, including a synagogue with a thoughtfully designed sanctuary, a social hall for gatherings, and a mikvah, a bath used for an important Jewish ritual. But it also includes four appealing, well-appointed, child-friendly preschool classrooms: KinderGan’s new home.
No one is more surprised at this turn of events than Frumie. While Frumie can speak of KinderGan for hours, she is not as comfortable speaking about herself, although her story is one of a woman with a mission, buoyed by her strong belief systems and her drive to give children a space to be celebrated.
As the child of parents who moved in the corporate world, Frumie expected that she would follow the same path, taking a job in banking or something similar. After attending high school in her hometown of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Frumie traveled to Australia to complete a year of work at a college seminary program. During that time she was placed in a preschool and asked to assist in the provision of Judaic studies for 45 children ages 3 to 5. She was, at first, unmoved by this opportunity; she did not see working with children in her future. But slowly, she began to love it. Then, when the main Judaic studies teacher left, they asked her to step into that role, and a career and passion were both born.
After leaving Australia, Frumie went back to New York City, taught at a yeshiva in Queens, and met her husband. After the birth of her first two children, she stopped working but went back to school to obtain both her bachelor’s and master’s degree in teaching. According to Frumie, the family decided to return to Maplewood/South Orange “to deepen the Jewish experience in the community in which her husband was raised.” Her husband’s role was clear: he would help lead the congregation and continue his work as a C.P.A., and Frumie set to work creating her vision of what a preschool should offer to its young students.
As Frumie explains, her goal always was to “create a space that would deliver an exceptional preschool experience, not only the kind that every child deserves, but one that would inspire them to reach their highest potential.” A lofty goal for sure, but not for a woman like Frumie.
After expanding the space attached to their residence to two classrooms, the opportunity to purchase a building directly across the street arose. The grandparents of triplets who attended the preschool approached them to ask what their vision was for the synagogue and preschool. After further conversation, the couple offered to donate seed money towards the building of a contemporary structure and the Bogomilskys took on the challenge.
Having experienced the process of variance approval previously, they began the arduous journey of negotiating variance applications and managing a major construction project. Frumie, while running the preschool and raising eight children, spent countless hours ensuring that every detail of the new building met with her exacting standards, which took an inordinate amount of her time. Touring the now completed facility with Frumie, two things are evident: She is very pleased with the outcome, and it was well worth her time.
KinderGan is a true labor of love for Frumie, a long-time educator. It’s a place she has both created and grown, directed by the tenets of the Jewish heritage that define much of how she both teaches and lives. Frumie is a person who not only talks the talk of creating community, it’s at the very heart of how she lives. When speaking with Frumie it is clear the values of living as part of a community, with responsibilities to our neighbors and friends, is at the center of how she perceives both the school and synagogue. She is a person who feels deeply connected to the premise that we exist to serve and assist others, and her work developing and growing KinderGan into a successful and well-considered educational entity is more than a job for her; it speaks to the core of who she is as a human.
With a curriculum written by Frumie, KinderGan uses Torah portions tied to real-life lessons – for example, learning about animals through the story of Noah’s Ark or exploring mountains and volcanoes via the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, the celebration of the time at which the Torah was given to the Jewish nation on Mount Sinai. In fact, Frumie strongly believes the connection to Jewish thoughts and beliefs can be tied to almost every facet of life experience that her students will need to know as they begin to encounter the world around them. According to Frumie, “the school aims to integrate Jewish and moral values alongside an enriched preschool curriculum.”
And while students at KinderGan learn the basics most preschools teach to prepare children for kindergarten, Frumie often speaks to the larger purpose. Mara Bernstein, a mother of two daughters who “graduated” from KinderGan, each there for three years, has only wonderful things to say about her children’s experience. The first word out of her mouth when describing the preschool is “heart.” She goes further to say, “At KinderGan you were treated like a family member,” adding that while she looked at other schools with many bells and whistles, it was the traditional nature of KinderGan that drew her in, along with the school’s focus on teaching kids what it means to be part of a group, a community. As she reasoned, “This is the first time your children are out of your home; it’s important that they learn to be good community members.”
These words are surely music to Frumie’s ears. Family and community are at the center of everything she does. As Mara recounts, “I saw two children run up to Frumie, asking her which one of them was taller.” Mara remembered that Frumie knelt down to speak to the two children, saying softly and surely, “You are both exactly as tall as you were meant to be.” Simple, true, and affirming.
While KinderGan is flourishing, and her children have begun to forge their own lives, Frumie has started to think about her future. And while some people might decide that raising a large family, while creating and expanding a successful preschool might mean it’s time for some respite, Frumie is thinking of becoming a teacher trainer, imparting her learned experience to others entering her field. It makes sense she will not sit out: She is a doer, someone who does not see obstacles, only opportunities. And, most importantly, it appears Frumie has a lot to share.
A long-time Maplewood resident, and reluctant empty nester, Tamara Steckler is fascinated by stories of all kinds.