In lieu of snack time this past Monday morning, 130 or so toddlers gathered in the sanctuary of Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood to attend a wedding. For most of the children, it was their first such ceremony — and it was a distinctly special one. They had gathered to watch the synagogue's early-childhood center's assistant teacher, Janine Neff, marry Howard Vigderman.
A little more than four years ago, Neff could not have imagined a day like this. She was left devastated after the sudden death of her first husband, followed closely by the loss of her mother. As Ann Altus, the director of the school for 35 years recounts, "Janine was looking for something to fill the huge void in her life."
A Beth Hillel congregant, the mother of three grown sons and a resident of Ardmore, Neff began teaching at the school, and quickly became immersed in the daily routine.
"You saved my life," Neff said she eventually told Altus as the school community became more and more a part of her life. "After losing my husband and mother within two months of one another, being with the children helped me feel positive in a very dark time."
Friends at the shul eventually brought Ness together with Vigderman, a fellow congregant and divorced father of two from Wynnewood.
Once they became engaged, they knew they would marry on Jan. 11 — the day that both of their parents had been married by the very same rabbi.
"My mother told me that it was time for chapter two," said Neff, "and that's what I found with Howard."
Neff insisted that she "wanted everyone to be at the wedding," so event planning went into full swing at the school. In addition to the guests under the age of 5, all organized by Altus, about 50 family members and friends of the couple were in attendance.
Cantor Eugene Rosner, who leads the Beth Hillel/Beth El children in their weekly Shabbat services, officiated at the ceremony for his two congregants. The bride and groom said their vows under a chupah made of family tallitot, surrounded by her sons and daughters-in-law, and his daughters.
The cantor explained how it was difficult to believe that Janine and Howard had not known one another before their blind date. They had attended many of the same Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and countless Shabbats.
When they did finally meet, explained Rosner, "it was something fresh and new, and that was just what they both needed."
During the big day, the children sat quietly, observing their teacher in her knee-length white dress and veil, holding a colorful bouquet of flowers. Many of them giggled as Neff held her arms up high when the cantor announced that they were indeed married.
Vigderman said that "the children enhanced the whole experience, and it meant a lot to us that the wedding meant so much to them. In fact, I told Janine, the more the merrier."
'Great Learning Opportunity'
Several of Neff's classroom mothers were present to see her married and to gauge their children's reactions.
"The children know they are supposed to say 'mazel tov' at the end," said one mother, and they were excited to get dressed up.
One 2-year-old boy proudly showed off his "costume," complete with a blazer and clip-on tie.
The pre-kindergarten class reported that "the best part was when the glass broke."
A 4-year-old enthusiastically stated his intentions to one day marry a fellow classmate in the very same sanctuary.
After taking pictures with their newly married teacher, the children returned to their classrooms for wedding cupcakes and their new teddy bears, given to them by the bride and groom.
"Social competency is a big part of what we teach," noted Altus. "An event such as this is a great learning opportunity for the children."
Neff and Vigderman joined their invited guests for a small reception at the synagogue, complete with a wedding cake provided by the school. They will soon leave for their European honeymoon.
When Neff returns, she said that she plans to dive right back in at Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El, teaching the children she adores.
As Altus stated: "Every day is now wonderful for Janine, and she has this whole new life."
"I'm not going anywhere," remarked Neff. "They'll have to carry me away from these kids."