The already excellent Early Learning Center at the Jewish Community Center is now moving on to the next level, thanks to its new director, Norma Cahen.
“I’m so thrilled that we found Norma to lead our Early Learning Center, and I’m confident with her expertise, passion and talents she will take our wonderful program to new heights for many years to come,” said Sara Wagner, senior vice-president and chief operations officer of the JCC.
Cahen unfortunately got her start in Louisville during the winter storms of February 16, but she didn’t seem fazed by the chaos.
Cahen was born in Augusta, GA, and raised in Aiken, SC. She’s spent most of her adult life in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and she recently spent a couple of years “on a mountain” near Waynesville, NC.
She started working in early childhood education 38 years ago with an associate’s degree, but due to the demands of raising four boys, she didn’t finish her bachelor’s degree until she was 45 years old. For 23 years of her teaching career, she worked at a Reform temple in Fort Lauderdale, FL, though she was raised in an ultra-Orthodox family.
She then retired and began working for a government agency for which she coached preschools to better their quality of education. She has also spent many years teaching early childhood education at the college level.
While living in North Carolina, Cahen struggled to find a job teaching college, and she realized that she really missed the interaction with children and their parents. A friend sent her a link to the job listing at the JCC and she applied.
When she first talked on the phone to Wagner, she said, “I could feel the commitment and the excitement of the Jewish Community Center. It was such an exciting conversation, and I knew I wanted to work with her.”
When the opportunity in Louisville arose, Cahen and her husband Howie considered it because they were already familiar with the community as they have cousins here. With their children grown and moved away with their own families, the pair decided to make the move.
Wagner is glad they did.
“Our JCC is really fortunate that Norma and Howie decided to move here, and we welcome her to Louisville and the Jewish community,” Wagner said.
Cahen has also served as the national president of the Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism, and says that teaching and Judaism are both very important to her. She plans to take the ELC into the future with more high quality Jewish early learning.
“The JCC’s ELC provides outstanding opportunities for infant to 5-year-old children to learn through their play activities,” Cahen said. “Using high-quality best practices found in early childhood learning today, my goal will be to bring more creative ideas to assist the educators. It is important that young children learn about the world around them, and it is equally important to learn about their world through the morals and ethical values of Judaism. It will be my honor to expand upon this goal through holiday songs, art and celebrations.”
Angie Hiland, ELC assistant director, said the changes have already become apparent at the center.
“She brings a wealth of early childhood knowledge,” Hiland said. “She comes from the perspective of, ‘When we play, we learn,’ so she knows easy ways to hide academics in play. She teaches the kids Hebrew words and numbers and new Jewish songs, and she took our Purim celebration to the next level with a Megillah reading.”
Cahen has very good reason to make those holiday celebrations extra fun.
“Research and experience tell us that to be effective with young children teaching practices need to be developmentally and age appropriate,” she said. “Implementing Judaic holiday celebrations and assisting the educators will strengthen the bond of quality early childhood education for all of us here at the JCC.”
Hiland said that under Cahen’s direction, the school is increasing the education of the teachers, too.
“We’re working with all our staff who don’t have degrees to get CDA credentialed, and Norma used to teach that,” Hiland said. “She’s helping them get continuing education and professional development to make them better educators, which will raise the quality of education offered to our ELC children.”
Cahen said the education of teachers is an ongoing process: “I truly believe that one can never learn enough about how to care for young children! Jewish early childhood education can be done at a high level,” she said. “It’s my passion, my vocation, my avocation and my life. Judaism and early childhood education defined me.”
Hiland added that Cahen is fitting in well and adjusting to life at the JCC.
“The kids enjoy her, and the parents enjoy her,” Hiland said. “It’s wonderful. It’s so nice to have a partner again!”
Wagner said she is very pleased with the decision to hire Cahen and excited about the future of the ELC.
“Norma is the kind of professional that teachers, children and families will gravitate to, and she will be a major influence in their lives for years to come,” Wagner said.