JCC North Preschool a Second Home for Northwest Community’s Jewish Families

When Matt Goldberg’s parents first stepped foot in the JCC North preschool, they never imagined that almost 20 years later he’d be in Washington, D.C., interning with the same friends he made while learning Hebrew and singing Shabbat songs in preschool. Today, 25 years after the preschool opened, Goldberg’s mother, Ellen Leidner, marvels at how fortunate her son and his self-styled “Jew Crew” have been to have had their strong Jewish connections start early.

“All the credit goes to Debbie Romanoff, who at the time as JCC North Director, forged these friendships among the families, made everyone feel welcome and comfortable, and instilled a sense that being Jewish is as much a part of who these kids were as the color of their hair, even when the other kids around them were of another faith,” said Leidner. Romanoff is celebrating her 25th year working at the JCC North preschool.

One of Romanoff’s great strengths is her experience and understanding of what it’s like to be on both sides. Romanoff started out as a parent before becoming a teacher. Her son, Steven, was one of the first students enrolled in the Northwest community’s preschool, where his first teacher in the 3-year-old classroom was current Early Childhood Education Director Nikki Henry.

Romanoff explained that, soon after her son began attending the preschool, there was a need for a new teacher and she was asked if she would be willing to work part-time. “That was in 1988, and I’ve been working there ever since. Year after year, my role grew until I was approached about being director,” which she did for over a decade, said Romanoff.

As she approaches retirement age, Romanoff said she continues to teach because she simply loves being in the classroom. “I have fun being a teacher. I really enjoy the children. They are so innocent at that age and will tell you anything and everything. I just have a passion for teaching and a love for the Jewish community,” said Romanoff.

“We are so lucky to have Debbie on our staff. Our long-term, committed teachers are what make the JCC preschools as strong as they are. Debbie is a teacher who is loved by all for her genuine love of the children and of teaching, her creativity, and her enthusiasm,” said current JCC North Preschool Director Jennifer Wilkinson. With its low student-teacher ratios and loyal, tight-knit community, it’s easy to see why Romanoff would want to call the JCC North her second family.

Ruth Ann Blank, who was JCC Board President from 1989 to 1991, championed the expansion of the JCC North preschool. She spoke about why expanding the preschool for Jewish families in Dublin, Powell, Worthington, and surrounding areas was so important to her, “In 1984 the board made a commitment to become more inclusive. In 1986 we opened the preschool in a small house. It wasn’t long before we had to expand to a larger venue. We are one community and having a preschool and being able to offer Jewish opportunities for families in the Northwest was one of my personal goals.”

The JCC North preschool invites parents to come to their February 22 Open House to see how the program could be like a second family for their own children. Starting children on a Jewish journey today could mean a lifetime of Jewish friendships and opportunities tomorrow. Join the JCC family as they celebrate Shabbat, sing along with Marc Rossio, and are mesmerized by the storytelling of Rabbi Rick Kellner. Afterwards, parents can take a tour of the center, observe the classrooms, and ask questions.

The February 22 Open House, from 9-11:30 a.m., will show parents what the JCC North program is all about: a supportive, nurturing, Jewish learning environment and family atmosphere based in Dublin. Parents who come to the Open House can make new friends and chat with current preschool families about why the JCC North preschool, located at 1985 Swansford Drive, is so special to them.

What’s really special for Romanoff is that her first family is just steps away, too. She gets to see her granddaughter, 3-year-old Jordan, every day, because she also attends the JCC North preschool that her mother, Romanoff’s daughter, attended. Romanoff’s proudest time at the JCC North— a moving moment that brought her to tears, she said— was when her granddaughter was born and the entire preschool sang the Shehecheyanu to her in celebration.

Romanoff was the JCC North Preschool Director when the Goldberg family started sending their son, Matt, there in the early 1990s, and helped initiate and guide parents to building friendships that extended beyond the classroom and well beyond the preschool years. The best part about being at the JCC for 25 years, said Romanoff, is that you get to see the end result, the effects of your work. “It gives me the greatest thrill to see the kids grow up and see all the positive results as they become young adults. I’ve been invited to Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, even weddings,” she said.

The Jew Crew, for example, developed out of a need she saw to create community in the northwest, said Romanoff. The preschool parents, some of whom had just moved to the community, quickly became friends alongside their children. Jew Crew parent Ellen Leidner spoke about what makes this so special. “The northwest Jewish community is so dispersed in terms of distance, miles, and multiple school districts. Kids there have school and neighborhood friends that are most likely not Jewish, and often are different from their Jewish friends,” she said.

That the Jew Crew has continued all these years really is remarkable, she said. “It’s a tribute to their time at the JCC North in the 1990s. They started together in the house at the intersection of Sawmill and Bethel roads.” Even during high school, said Leidner, while a number of the kids went to different schools, some managed to attend school dances and prom together. Some traveled together to Israel on mission trips or to participate in the P2K Young Partners program sponsored by the Columbus Jewish Federation, or attended summer camp together.

Now juniors and sophomores at different colleges and scattered across the country, four of the preschool boys—Jonathan Katz, Ben Kremply, Joe Kon, and Leidner’s son, Matthew, who is currently studying abroad in London—spent this past summer together in D.C. The whole crew continues to meet regularly, reuniting at least twice a year, usually during the summer and around the holidays.

Like the Jew Crew that developed because of the connections formed there, the JCC North preschool truly is a cozy, close-knit family, said Romanoff, and it’s that warm and caring Jewish atmosphere that made her daughter want to continue the tradition by sending Romanoff’s granddaughter there, as well. “It’s a very homey, very loving environment,” said Romanoff, “where parents are friends and everybody knows everybody else.” Those kinds of connections, especially Jewish ones, are difficult to find today. But the JCC North preschool program and Romanoff strive to maintain them.

The open, airy classroom environment of the JCC North preschool invites children to share in wonderment as they learn about Judaism and are taught Hebrew words and phrases, sing and dance to songs like “Bim Bam, Shabbat Shalom,” and “Ima Says,” and celebrate the Jewish holidays together, as a community. The facility boasts a seasoned staff with a very low turnover rate, a curriculum focused on the teachings found in Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, and on building awareness of loving-kindness through practical applications in a sharing, caring environment that exemplifies the Jewish teachings.

“The JCC North preschool is a wonderful place to work and for Jewish children to learn and grow and develop their Jewish identities. My maturity and experience makes me very confident in what I have to give to the children and parents. It’s just very rewarding to work 25 years in this field. I look forward to coming to work every day,” said Romanoff.

The JCC North preschool family, located at 1985 Swansford Drive in Dublin, invites your family to join them as they celebrate Shabbat with song and dance, laughter, and storytelling. The Open House on February 22 will follow the schedule below, but invites families to come any time between 9 and 11 a.m.

  • 9:00 Sign in and nosh over a cup of coffee or tea
  • 9:30 Shabbat Assembly with music by Marc Rossio & storytelling by Rabbi Rick Kellner
  • 10:15 Tour of the JCC North
  • 10:30 Classroom observations
  • 11:00 Meet in the library for questions and answers

For more information on the JCC North Early Childhood Program or to RSVP for the Open House, please contact Jennifer Wilkinson or Linda Fischer at the JCC North office at (614) 764-2414 or by emailing jwilkinson@columbusjcc.org.