When Sheila Stockley started working at the former Northern Hebrew Day Nursery in 1956 at age 16, she spent most of her time watching the children roam around a cement playground until their parents, usually single moms, came to pick them up.
Today, at 71, Stockley still works as an administrator and caregiver for the Jewish child care agency, which has since evolved into Federation Early Learning Services.
The children have the same magnetic appeal, she said, but the institution has changed dramatically.
In addition to swing sets, the centers now have computers, padded climbing gyms and outdoor gardens. The teachers work together to plan lessons. Guest instructors lead singing, movement and even sign language.
The older children in the after-school program that Stockley runs still love Nancy Drew books, she said, except they read them on a computer game where they can help solve the mystery.
"They're mesmerized with it, they don't even want to go home," Stockley said.
For all the change Stockley has seen over her 55 years at FELS, that time period accounts for only a little more than half of the agency's evolution. The nonprofit early childhood education program celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, a milestone commemorated at a June banquet honoring past and present board members as well as the 40,000 children who grew up under FELS care.
Like many longstanding organizations, FELS has weathered financial struggles, closures and openings, name changes and shifting cultural perceptions.
The first incarnation of the agency dates back to the opening of the Downtown Hebrew Day Nursery in 1911, followed shortly after by two others: Northern and Strawberry Mansion, both within 15 miles of Center City.
At that time, synagogues weren't in the business of running preschools for single parents who had to work. Untrained immigrant women volunteered to watch the kids, and directors "fundraised" by seeking food donations from pushcart vendors and soliciting door to door. Out of economic necessity, the centers eventually became constituent agencies under what's now known as the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Amid post-World War II suburban flight, Strawberry Mansion relocated to the Northeast to serve the growing Jewish population there. It moved into the Samuel Paley Day Care Center in 1966. A few years later, in 1973, Federation Day Care Services was born. (The name changed to FELS in 2003.)
Enrollment at Paley quickly grew to more than 240 children. Staff offered enrichment programs, support services, Jewish programming, summer camp and parenting classes. Social workers helped single moms find jobs, complete taxes and cope with divorce. Mothers who came to them said "we saved their lives," said Fredda Satinsky, a former teacher there and now the agency's vice president of program development.
Demand was so high in the '70s that Paley directors contracted with in-home day care providers to reduce waiting lists. At one point, 40 providers were collectively caring for 230 children, said Maddy Malis, FELS president and CEO.
Expansion accelerated through the 1980s as the number of working parents — and the availability of state funding for child care — increased. As the stigma of being a working mom started to wear off, FELS added facilities in Montgomery, Delaware and, later, Bucks counties.
Of course, long hours aligned with work schedules, updated equipment and higher standards for teachers didn't come without a price. While child care is no longer seen as a service just for poor people, Satinsky said, there are never enough subsidies to make it affordable for all. For families who don't qualify for financial assistance, full-time care ranges from $10,400 to $14,800 a year per child, depending on age and center location.
That's slightly higher than state averages, but on par with comparable early childhood programs at local synagogues and secular facilities that cropped up in recent decades. Of about 35 synagogue preschools in the area, at least five offer full-day care for children as young as 6 weeks old.
Jewish Flavor Despite Shifts
Today, FELS serves about 1,000 students at eight centers and three public school sites. The last in-home providers shut down in 2010, no longer needed because of surrounding competition.
Although enrollment hasn't been increasing as much, if at all, in recent decades, the centers have continued to respond to demographic and economic trends, as well as shifts in Jewish population. FELS' latest addition, the Buerger Center, opened in 2010 in partnership with Reform Congregation Rodeph Shalom, in response to a resurgence of young Jewish families in Center City. The 36 slots filled immediately — the vast majority from Jewish or intermarried families. Directors are already considering a synagogue addition that would have space to double the enrollment.
In contrast, the student makeup at most of the other centers becomes more diverse every day, "like a little United Nations," Malis said. The Lassin Center in Northeast Philly, for example, almost exclusively served Jewish single moms up until 2000, she said. Today, only 3 percent to 11 percent of the families there are Jewish.
Though FELS has held fast to its Jewish identity over the years, that, too, has evolved to align with client needs, accreditation standards and economic demands. The large percentage of non-Jewish or non-observant families, for example, still need child care on Jewish holidays, so FELS only closes for major celebrations, such as Rosh Hashanah and Passover.
In order to qualify as an accredited program under the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the centers have also been required to reflect the diversity of the population they serve. That means pictures of children from various racial backgrounds and multicultural items in every classroom — a stark contrast to past decades where Jewish heritage got all the limelight, Malis said.
Despite those tweaks, there's no denying the Jewish flavor at FELS. Just past the main entrance to the Mary Bert Gutman Early Learning Center in Melrose Park, visitors are greeted by an Israeli flag and a table filled with information about local Jewish groups. Larger-than-life murals depicting the Jewish holidays decorate the hallways.
Upstairs, 4-year-olds finish listening to a story and scatter around the classroom to play. On the wall, there are pictures of the kids petting a camel and competing in the "Maccabiah Games" during a recent Israel Independence Day celebration. Nearby is a shelf with a kiddush cup and challah cover — a display found in every classroom. It's not just for show. Every Friday, the teachers lead their charges in singing Shabbat prayers.
Clergy from nearby shuls visit the children, provide resources and hold outreach programs for unaffiliated families. Each center also has a Jewish education specialist to incorporate Jewish learning into daily lessons.
In contrast to the Northeast centers, which have experienced the most dramatic drop in Jewish students, FELS four years ago stepped up to fill a niche for the Orthodox community not far away in the northern suburbs.
It started with a phone call from a parent at Young Israel of Elkins Park. The congregants wanted a nursery but couldn't find an affordable space, Malis said.
With Rabbi Dov Brisman's hechsher, Malis hired Dubbie Ungar, a well-respected former in-home day care provider, to run an Orthodox classroom at Gutman.
Inside Ungar's room, 13 preschoolers, ages 3 and 4, learn the "aleph-bet," sing songs and pray in both Hebrew and English.
When Rhawnhurst mother Helena Carmel, 32, first visited, Ungar was leading the children through the names of all the weekly Torah portions.
"I remember thinking, 'OK, I've seen what I need to see,' " Carmel said.
Even though Carmel stopped working as a pharmacist to care for her three children, she said she felt it was important to give them a taste of the academics and socialization they would experience in kindergarten so they could learn how to take directions and behave in a group. All of that, though, had to be in an inviting Orthodox setting so that they would be prepared for Jewish day school.
"We wanted them to be excited about living their heritage and that's definitely been the case," Carmel said, recounting how her daughter took care to wash her ears during a recent bath, saying "I gotta scrub out all that lashon hara."
In addition to the Judaism that Ungar teaches, Carmel said, "they get such a beautiful, well-rounded education on top of it." The kids have access to all the amenities that FELS offers, from the landscaped playground to the visiting bookmobile.
Unexpected Gateway to Judaism
In contrast to Carmel, Makaylia Binkley said she was inclined to shy away from day cares that had any sort of religious affiliation. She was raised Christian; her husband, Neil, is half-Jewish, half-Christian. But, on a friend's recommendation, the couple decided to tour the FELS Terri Lynne Lokoff Early Learning Center in Ambler just a few months before their son, Nate, was born.
"We went in, looked around and thought, we can't do any better than this," Binkley said. "He was going to be loved there and that was the biggest thing for us."
Of course, she continued, Nate was an infant then and they weren't thinking about the questions that he's now asking as a 21/2-year-old who's being raised without any religion at home.
Still, she said, it's worth having those conversations to have him in a place where he's safe and respected.
In a way, Binkley said, having him exposed to different cultures is a positive thing. She's learning, too, looking up information about Purim and the Shabbat song Nate sings.
If he decides to pursue Judaism when he gets older, that'll be his choice, she said, adding that he's certainly developed an "extreme love" for challah.
While several FELS staff interviewed couldn't recall if any non-Jewish children later converted, a number of families credit FELS for rekindling or heightening their connection to Judaism.
Religion wasn't even on the radar when Overbrook couple Justin Fink and Sandra Masayko were looking for day care. Though raised as a Reform Jew, Fink said he had no interest in maintaining any connection to Judaism once he left for college. Masayko's parents were Catholic and Congregational.
Their first priority — quality education– drew them to Lokoff, at that time located in Overbrook Park, after touring three other options. The center director "was a force of nature" who had high standards and ran a very tight ship, "but it was not an uptight ship," Fink said.
The teachers were welcoming and attuned to developmental progress, which, for the older kids, meant extra attention to social and reading skills that would prepare them for kindergarten, Fink said.
"They were real early-childhood educators, they were not babysitters," Fink said.
It wasn't until after their son, Matthew, now 26, started attending Lokoff that the Jewish aspect "grew on us as a family." It was cool to see the whole class participate in the Shabbat ritual on Fridays, especially since it was so racially diverse, he said. Their daughter, Sarah, 21, was even more excited by the Jewish traditions, Fink said, which encouraged them to bring holiday celebrations and candlelighting into their home.
"There's a certain synergy when your kid comes home and she tells you what she's learned and asks you questions about it and it starts some family discussions," he said.
Fink said he found himself reconnecting with something that he didn't realize he still valued.
By age 5, he said, Sarah "threw down the gauntlet for her parents" by announcing her desire to be Jewish. The whole family began taking classes at an unaffiliated program. From there, Fink said, they joined Germantown Jewish Centre so he and his wife could continue night classes while their daughter began studying to become a Bat Mitzvah. Meanwhile, Masayko decided to convert. Together, mother and daughter went through the ritual mikvah and conversion service. A few months later, Sarah had her Bat Mitzvah.
"That sounds strange that you would send your kid to child care and it would be a turning point for your family, but it's true," Fink said. "It was a way for a family that was not connected to reconnect with the gift of Judaism."
Whatever change comes next for FELS, Malis said, the mission will remain the same: to provide a safe, educational environment so moms and dads can focus on work. Doing that "in a program that's built on Jewish values and traditions I think holds us in good stead for the next 100 years," she said.
There's already one expansion on the horizon: Starting this fall the centers will open for early arrivals at 6:30 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m.
Stockley's been ready for that for years, often arriving to the Lassin Center at 5:15 a.m., well before she starts supervising the early care program.
After 8 a.m., she turns to administrative duties until 3 p.m., when she takes on another role as the after-school teacher. Former parents and students driving through the neighborhood honk when they see her waiting for the bus. Sometimes, she said, they'll even drop in to see her, already grown-up and married.
"They still call me Ms. Sheila and I get hugs and that means a lot to me," Stockley said. "When a child comes over to me and hugs me and I see that smile on their face," she paused, "I don't need anything else."