Montessori Schools Surge in Popularity Among New Generation of Jewish Parents

In the boys’ classroom at Lamplighters Yeshivah in the Hasidic Jewish stronghold of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Montessori number-counting boards and decimal beads share space with Hebrew-learning materials. A colorful timeline on the wall shows two strands of world history in parallel: secular on the left, Jewish on the right. A photo of the grand rabbi of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement hangs above a list of tasks that children perform individually: make a fractions poster, practice cursive, learn about the moon’s phases.

Into the classroom on a recent morning came Rivkah Schack, one of the school’s principals, holding a tool whose form, if not its content, would be familiar to any Montessori teacher: a small nomenclature booklet in which the students were to write words from the Bible by hand and illustrate them. In secular Montessori, the booklets might be used to teach botanical terms; here, they were for Hebrew.

“Not to mix our metaphors, but that’s our holy grail,” said Ami Petter-Lipstein, the director of the Jewish Montessori Society, based in Highland Park, N.J., as Ms. Schack gathered a few pupils around her on the rug for a group Hebrew lesson.

For an educational movement trying to use a century-old pedagogical method developed by an Italian Catholic, Maria Montessori, to teach Jewish tenets, mixing metaphors is the point. Arguing that the traditional Jewish day-school model they grew up with is outmoded and too clannish for 21st-century Judaism, a new generation of parents and educators are flocking to Montessori preschools and elementary schools that combine secular studies with Torah and Hebrew lessons.

Daniel Septimus, who attended a modern Orthodox school but now identifies as a traditional egalitarian Jew, said the schools he had attended were “purposely insular.”

“We knew there was a big, wide world out there where people did different things, but it was kind of scary, and we were supposed to have limited contact with it,” he said.

His son Lev, 3, attends Luria Academy in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, a Montessori school that proudly advertises the religious diversity of its students. “I think this is just more realistic,” Mr. Septimus said. “Ultimately, our kids are going to live in diverse and multicultural communities.”

In Brooklyn, whose more than 600,000 Jews include secular Jews in brownstone Brooklyn and Hasidic Jews in Borough Park and Williamsburg, four Montessori schools have opened in the last decade. Each is tailored to a different group: one is for Hasidic girls in Borough Park, another for Hasidic boys in Midwood; Lamplighters’ students are mainly Chabad-Lubavitchers, while Luria’s students range from secular to Hasidic.

Both Luria and Lamplighters have expanded to accommodate growing demand.

Jewish Montessori schools, which began to catch on about 15 years ago, have also surged in popularity across the country. In Boca Raton, Fla., there are centrist Orthodox, Chabad Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Montessori preschools; Orthodox day schools have started Montessori programs in Houston and Cincinnati; and several New Jersey towns with large Jewish populations now have Montessori schools. The American Montessori Society says there are more than 4,000 Montessori schools in the United States; most are private (and secular, although some are associated with other religions) but a few are public. Ms. Petter-Lipstein said her group was tracking more than 40 Jewish Montessoris in North America and about 30 in Israel.

Though some secular parents criticize the Montessori schools as expensive and elitist, too unstructured or even cultish, the philosophy of allowing children to learn at their own pace and develop personal responsibility through individual learning tasks gels well with the Jewish tenet of educating each child according to his or her own way, its advocates say.

“We’re not just educating for academics, we’re trying to bring the child for God,” said Yocheved Sidof, the executive director at Lamplighters. “It’s all one world.” (Chabad-Lubavitchers also embrace the Montessori method because the movement’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, endorsed it before his death in 1994.)

The interest in the Montessori method reflects what some Jewish educators say is a broader trend toward innovation and opening up to the secular world. Once focused on perpetuating Jewish religious identity, educators, like the leaders of the Solomon Schechter Conservative school network, are adopting buzz words like “engagement” and “cosmopolitanism,” said Benjamin M. Jacobs, a professor of Jewish studies at New York University.

The economic downturn prompted soul-searching about the high cost of most Jewish day schools, which are concerned about losing students to public schools, other private schools or new alternatives like Montessori or Hebrew charter schools, Professor Jacobs said. Day-school tuitions can be $15,000 to $20,000 per child — or higher in the New York area — and Jewish Montessoris seem comparably priced. Lamplighters’ yearly elementary school tuition for new families is $12,000; Luria’s is about $15,000 a year depending on the age of the child.

“There are a ton of people out there who think they’re too stifling, who want their kids to have a broader perspective on the world,” Professor Jacobs said of the traditional schools. The question is, he said, how are students “going to be served, Jewish educationally, so that they could still want to quote on quote ‘stay in the fold,’ but have their differing, more contemporary needs met?”

The founder of Luria, Sam Boymelgreen, grew up ultra-Orthodox but now identifies as “open Orthodox.” Recalling that he “spent a lot of time sleeping at my desk” as a student, he said he started the school after finding that there were few options in Brooklyn for parents looking for progressive, yet Jewish educations.

Luria may embrace diversity, but many new Jewish Montessoris are the only such schools in town and draw a heterogeneous array of students by accident.

One mother in Highland Park pulled her son out of the local Montessori after preschool because it was coeducational, and the family’s rabbi said the boy had to be in a single-sex environment as he grew older; others find the schools too religious, Ms. Petter-Lipstein said.

Parents also often worry about the seeming lack of structure and supervision, and have questioned whether the religious education would be rigorous enough. But several parents interviewed said their fears were allayed after several months. The secular-plus-Jewish approach “reinforces all the different ideas, makes for a richer learning experience,” said Belle Guttman, whose daughter Aviva is in a class for 5- and 6-year-olds at Luria.

For schools like Lamplighters, even giving secular subjects like English equal billing with religious studies is radically innovative. Boys in traditional Chabad elementary schools receive no secular lessons except through after-school programs and private tutors; girls often learn Hebrew, Hasidic law and Jewish philosophy in the morning and secular subjects in the afternoon.

At Lamplighters, the children pray in class, eat kosher lunches and are taught by teachers who often double as rabbis, but their religious lessons are rotated with secular ones. Sometimes the two are closely integrated: When the boys’ class expressed an interest in animals, the teacher organized a unit on animals and the Jewish laws that relate to them. Montessori tools, known as manipulatives, that help children learn about animals were divided between kosher and nonkosher species.

Melding the secular and the spiritual can be trickier at Luria. The school encourages children to talk about their families’ varying religious practices, believing that sharing their differences will strengthen their religious identities. Parents can ask teachers to make sure their children are following family practices. If families host birthday parties, they must make sure the food is kosher enough for all.

In one classroom of 5- and 6-year-olds, some children wore skullcaps and had the fringes of prayer shawls dangling at their waists. On his son’s first day, Mr. Septimus recalled, “I didn’t know if there were more Chabad parents or tattooed parents.”

Ms. Guttman’s daughter often comes home with questions about why their religious practices differ from those of her classmates. She is jealous, for example, of friends who are allowed to watch TV and ride in cars on the Sabbath. But Ms. Guttman, who grew up Hasidic in Borough Park and attended an all-girls yeshiva, said Aviva was absorbing the tools to make choices about her spirituality on her own.

But tough questions loom, like what will happen when the children grow old enough that some parents become uncomfortable with coed classes.

“I tell parents,” said Amanda Pogany, Luria’s head of school, “you’re being brave to send your child here.”