When Lillian “Ellie” Feibus started college, she had no intention of following in the footsteps of her mother, Lois Feibus, a preschool teacher.
Instead, Ellie Feibus wanted to pursue international law, but a developmental psychology class made her realize that it was “education or nothing.”
Now Feibus, 36, is the director of Rodef Shalom Congregation’s Sidney & Shirley C. Rapport Family Center.
“My favorite part about the job, I can already answer this, is working with educators who are truly passionate about children and truly passionate about what they do,” said Feibus, who assumed her new role in late June. “It’s an absolute honor, especially as a member of the Orthodox community, to be working in a non-Orthodox environment and feel so accepted and so loved and so cherished.”
Feibus succeeded Miriam “Mimsie” Leyton, who was the preschool’s director for 26 years. While Leyton wasn’t directly involved with the search process, she had much to say about Feibus’ character after a week of onboarding.
“We made an instant connection,” Leyton said. “It was really easy. I could see right away that she and I were of the same mind about early childhood education. She cares very much about her work, has a strong work ethic and is informed by what’s best for children.”
Feibus, her late mother and Leyton all share the philosophy that education is best done through play-based learning.
“Everything a child needs to know at a young age — negotiating, sharing, understanding other people’s opinions — these social concepts that really are what make us people, can be learned through play, through exploration, through child-led questioning,” Feibus said.
What that looks like in action is not a free-for-all unstructured day, but rather a system that is built around the child’s interests and passions.
“We listen to the children, and we take their opinion into account and we look to who they are at a very — I call it the soul level,” she said. “In past places where I’ve worked, it’s always been a challenge because education has become so heavily state-run and you have to follow everything to a T. And with play-based, yes, you’re following a model and you’re following certain guidelines, but you’re really just following the child.”
Feibus’ philosophy is inspired by the way her mother taught. As a child, Feibus lived in Wilkes-Barre and attended Wyoming Seminary, a nearby preparatory school where her mother taught her preschool class. When Feibus told her mother she wanted to be Galileo when she grew up, her mother handed her a telescope — really a toilet paper roll — and a robe.
For every dream Feibus had, her mother found a way to encourage it. When she wanted to be like Vivaldi, her mother signed her up for violin lessons. When she wanted to be Van Gogh, her mother got her an easel. Now, Feibus shows that same enthusiasm to her students.
“My approach to the children in my class is if they’re interested in it, I have to learn about it,” Feibus said. “So, if they want to talk about polar bears, I need to know everything there is to know about polar bears. I become an expert in everything. Ask me about dinosaurs, I know it all.”
But it’s not all play for Feibus, a self-described workaholic. Her typical day starts with checking in with educators, greeting the families and their children as they enter Rodef Shalom and observing the educators during classes before she begins planning for the fall.
Feibus graduated from Chatham University with a degree in elementary education and earned a master’s in progressive leadership from Bank Street College in New York. She worked at the Carriage House Children’s Center in Squirrel Hill, where she got her first taste of play-based learning outside of her mother’s teaching.
“I think that I love to play,” Feibus joked about the impact play-based learning has had on her. “No, I think that it’s allowed me, as a grown-up, to continue to have wonderment about the world, to continue to ask questions and be open.”
Before coming to Rodef Shalom, she helped the Goddard School set up a franchise in Pennsylvania. Building the franchise school from the ground up was a “completely different being,” according to Feibus, but the clerical work she did to run the school was a stepping stone to the leader she wants to be at Rodef Shalom.
In her spare time, Feibus is working on a series of children’s books based on her childhood play and relationships with her family.
“Children are the future. It’s so true. This work is vital. Appreciating, loving, honoring, caring for the next generation is so important,” she said. “This is our future. We have to invest in it.”
Looking to that future, Feibus doesn’t plan to make any changes to the Family Center without prompting from the community.
“In terms of pedagogy or methodology, it’s totally right where I am,” she said. “I think that the changes that will be implemented are things that will be directed by the families and the educators. I have a huge commitment to transparency, so I definitely won’t make any changes without the parents and the educators and the greater Rodef community being involved in making this decision.” PJC
Abigail Hakas can be reached at email@example.com.