Ilene Meister is entering “my encore” or “the next chapter.”
On June 30, Meister will be leaving the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC, where she has worked in the Meyerhoff Early Childhood Education Center for the past 30 years, serving as director for the past 20 years. Over the past three decades, she has been responsible for a number of programs and initiatives that have made the JCC one of the most well-rounded and sought- after preschools in the region.
One can see her impact all over the building. She helped create the learning library to house all of the books the ECE has received from grants. She helped plan the JCC’s natural playground and its boundless universal playground, which accommodates children with physical disabilities. She turned the school’s teaching kitchen into the base of operations of its Michelle Obama award-winning Healthy Choices Program. She even took an active role in developing the physical space of the school when the ECE was remodeled.
“She created quite literally a new school from the ground up,” said Dale Busch, former executive vice president of the JCC who worked with Meister for 16 years. In honor of Meister’s contributions to the school, the ECE’s teaching kitchen will be renamed Ilenes’s Kitchen starting this upcoming school year.
“The JCC, this program, is like my fourth child,” said Meister. “If you asked my own children, they might say it was my favorite child.”
Meister has served in nearly every capacity at the ECE, starting as a science teacher, then as both a reading specialist and an educational therpaist before finding herself as the program’s director.
“From the very beginning, she jumped in with both feet and has never ceased being a dynamic, creative educator,” said Busch, who was involved in selecting Meister as the director of the ECE. “I had had some wonderful conversations with her and had seen her vision for working with small children and their families. I really was impressed; she so truly believed in the work that she was doing. It seemed to me that she had the vision that the JCC really needed at that time in the department.”
Meister joined the JCC when the ECE had already formed, but the school was in the process of being revamped and renovated when she was installed as director. The plans for the changes were already made, according to Meister, but she wanted to ensure the best learning environment possible for the students. She organized the teachers and had each visit two schools — 29 different schools in total — where they took notes on everything between the ceilings and the floors and decided what would be on the dream list for their own school.
Although many changes were rejected by the architect, several requests were accommodated. As a result of Meister’s planning and leadership, the ECE got a multipurpose room that was not in the original plans.
“She and her staff took the JCC and our school to some exciting new heights,” said Busch. “You could just tell by the way that she looked at the facilities and worked with the architect and brought teachers into those conversations, she was always thinking about how children would learn the best. She wanted the rooms and facilities that would create the best environment for children to grow and be nurtured. It was a remarkable thing to watch her work and see that every thought she had was about the children and the families that would send them.”
And Meister did not stop at improving the facilities of the ECE. Beyond wanting a good education for her students, she wanted to give them the abilities necessary to live a healthy, and Jewish, life.
“Ilene is one of those people who, when she hears something that doesn’t sit well with her, will take action,” said Emily Stern, senior director of camping and children’s services the JCC. This was what happened when Meister learned from an article written by former Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius that, for the first time since records were being kept, U.S. children had a shorter life expectancy than their parents due to childhood obesity. She decided to tackle the issue within her own school by creating a nutritional program in collaboration with a former school nurse from the JCC, Chris Sigman, to impact the health destiny of their students.
“[Meister] said, ‘Not on my watch at the JCC’ and developed the nutritional program that now brings a lot of families to the JCC,” said Stern. “Healthy Choices, I would consider her baby. I think that program speaks a lot to the way that she is.”
The Healthy Choices Program started in 2010 and began with changes that were within the control of teachers. For instance, each individual birthday was no longer celebrated with sweets, particularly since often there would be multiple birthdays in one week. Holidays were celebrated in other ways than eating, or with eating healthy food. Rather than baking in the teaching kitchen every week, making cookies was restricted to appropriate times such as making hamantaschen for Purim. Meister was particularly insistent that sweets no longer be used as a reward, advocating that it leads to an unhealthy lifestyle.
“It is counterproductive,” she said. “What you end up doing as an adult is when you have had a hard day at work, you go home and you hit the sweets because that is how you learned to reward yourself when you were a child.”
The Healthy Choices Program is still being constantly tweaked to make it better. Most recently, the 2-year-old class has been worked into the curriculum.
“We have learned from this whole experience that the earlier you start children eating healthy foods, the earlier they develop tastebuds for it and the easier it is to change their eating habits,” said Meister. “Then they want their parents to prepare certain foods. We did it the first year not knowing what the results were going to be. It was amazing. The children knew more about nutrition at the end of their first year than I did when I first got married.”
Parents have seen the effectiveness of the program. As a child, Chad Berman knew Meister, as his mother taught alongside her at the JCC. Thirty years later, Berman felt very comfortable sending his own child to preschool at the JCC with Meister there.
“She has a good program,” he said. “I really like the Healthy Choices Program, and learning those skills so young is a big part of it. A few months ago, I was shopping at Trader Joe’s with my son when he pointed out a pomegranate. I had never even seen a whole one before, and he wanted to get it and eat the pomegranate seeds because he had learned about it a few days before. Now he’s got us hooked on pomegranates.”
In its second year, the Healthy Choices Program was combined with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Program, which added a physical component to the curriculum so that the children were learning not only about nutrition, but also about the importance of staying physically fit. In 2012, Meister got a call asking if she and Sigman could come to Washington, D.C. — the JCC was being honored as one of the 12 best schools in the country for all that it was doing to impact the health destiny of its children. Beyond the excitement of being presented the award by Michelle Obama, Meister had the privilege of meeting Sebelius, who had inspired the Healthy Choices Program.
And Meister’s impact on the JCC reaches even further because of how her initiatives build off of each other. For example, while not directly a part of the Healthy Choices curriculum, the natural garden that Meister helped create boasts tomatoes and string beans grown by the students.
“It’s so exciting,” said Meister. “Two-year-olds will pick cherry tomatoes and pop them in their mouths. We take what we harvest into the kitchen and make things out of it, so the children really see what happens. They now know that tomatoes and string beans don’t just come from the Giant, they grow in the ground. And somehow, when children plant it and see it grow and water and take care of it, they are more apt to eat it.”
Similarly, the boundless universal playground that Meister helped design for children of all abilities ties in with her work with Project ACT and the Abilities Network. According to Meister, it goes back to ensuring that every child has a successful experience in school. It is important to be able to understand each child’s needs and to develop a specific program or plan of action so they can meet with success.
“Believe it or not, more children are asked to leave preschool than they are middle and high school because of behavioral problems, and that is very disconcerting to me,” said Meister. “Sitting down and doing this as a team with parents and teachers and coming up with a plan of action for those particular children, such as children here with Down syndrome or on the autism spectrum, is important. Learning to work with all different types of children and meeting their different learning styles is the direction [we’re taking] to make the program even better.”
Barak Hermann, chief executive officer of the JCC, praised Meister as “a true force in early childhood learning, extremely well-regarded for her ability to be attuned to the needs of each child. She has been incredible at customizing the early childhood experience to meet the needs of each individual child.”
Similarly, Arlene Lieberman, a teacher at the ECE, explained that Meister was always looking for new ideas and ways to improve the school when attending workshops and school fairs.
“She was always concerned with fostering good self- esteem in our children,” said Lieberman. “She was an advocate for all children [and] worked diligently, if the need arose, for children with special needs to get the services they needed through Project ACT or other schools. If parents needed more services than we could provide, she always helped to arrange them.”
Barbara Stadd, another teacher under Meister, recollected that Meister knows the children “so well that every year before kindergarten starts, we sit down and she tells me about each child with a bit of background on each one and even plans to place them at appropriate tables [in the classroom] according to their needs, strengths and weaknesses. She was totally involved.”
One other noteworthy program that Meister has instated at the JCC is called An Ethical Start. Developed by the JCC Association of North America, the program teaches children the same values and morals taught in Pirkei Avot, a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims that lay out the founding principles of the Mishnah.
“We wanted to teach children that there are other adjectives to describe people than pretty or handsome,” said Meister. “Teaching this to children was very important because society has become rather superficial, but there is kindness and empathy and honesty. Using those words with children on a daily basis is very important. Using them all of the time made children realize that what we valued were not the superficial things but the inner qualities that each had.”
The Macks Center for Jewish Education is now looking to incorporate Pirkei Avot into the programs of all its constituent schools.
According to Hermann, Meister has been a strong advocate for the professional development of her teachers and has worked tirelessly to ensure that her staff has the resources and training they need to be as successful as possible in their classrooms.
“We really want to celebrate her three decades of accomplishments and the incredible effect she has had on thousands of children and their families,” he said. “Her name has been synonymous with our school, and we have decided to continue her legacy of leadership [with] Ilene’s Kitchen to ensure that her name will a lways be part of the early childhood programs at the JCC.”
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be the director of the ECE, but I have really enjoyed the experience,” said Meister. “I think each director brings in their own vision and their own style, and the important thing for me was that every child deserves an early childhood education.”