Miriam “Mimsie” Leyton, a local pillar of early childhood education, is leaving the classroom. The longtime educator and director of the Berkman Family Center at Rodef Shalom Congregation will retire on June 30.
The April 27 announcement of her retirement was a chance for parents and congregants to lavish praise on a dedicated community member.
Since restarting Rodef Shalom’s early childhood center in 1997, Leyton helped the institution become “one of the most respected preschools in the community,” Mayda Roth, the congregation’s director of development, said.
“She’s like a second mom and an educational role model,” congregant Mimi Wertheimer said.
“Mimsie is the heart and soul of Rodef’s community,” board member Mollie Lang said.
Parents, congregants, friends and fellow educators will fete Leyton during a June 11 congregational picnic. The afternoon celebration, according to organizers, will highlight Leyton’s tireless efforts on behalf of children and families.
For more than a quarter century, Leyton has overseen the education of thousands of students at Rodef Shalom, but before restarting the Shadyside preschool, she worked as a head teacher at McKeesport Day Care, a federally-funded program providing education and services to low-income families. When the day care was absorbed by Louise Child Care Centers, Leyton remained on staff for nearly two decades, helping to establish several new centers, Roth said.
In her role as supervisor at Louise, Leyton recruited and enrolled families, trained staff and consulted across 11 Allegheny County facilities. In 1997, Leyton — a lifelong Rodef Shalom member — helped her congregation restart its educational center.
For the next 26 years, Leyton’s commitment to a play-based pedagogy prioritized the whole child within the context of family, Roth said.
Adopting such a child-led focus might sound odd to those without an educational background, but Leyton’s ability to communicate and understand both children and parents demonstrated that her “pedagogy is sound and that a child’s developmental needs are met,” Wertheimer said.
Her leadership style empowers children, teachers and parents, Lang said: “I can’t emphasize enough how you have so many questions as a young parent — about which direction to go and what to do — and Mimsie has always been this wild sense of calm in the storm of having toddlers.”
Leyton’s commitment bettered the lives of generations of families, Rodef Shalom’s preschool committee chair Matthew Falcone said. “For all of us, kids are a priority and we would do anything for our kids, but it’s so rare to find someone who will put all kids ahead of themself. She brings so much heart into everything she does and I think that’s why she is so well loved.”
Leyton not only grew up at Rodef Shalom, but her naming occurred on the synagogue’s bimah.
A newspaper clipping in the congregation’s archives shows her as a curly-haired child during her first day at Rodef Shalom’s “New Nursery School.”
Falcone said Leyton is a source of amazement.
The fact that someone could be named as a baby at a synagogue, attend its school, remain a central part of the congregation throughout her life and lead the institution for decades is “astounding,” he said. “I have a very difficult time wrapping my head around what that means.”
People typically don’t have the “expectation that there will be a lifelong job or that you’ll spend your life in an institution,” he continued. The fact that Leyton made Rodef Shalom and its preschool “her own and helped others along the way is such a rare opportunity — and she has done wonders with that opportunity. It just boggles my mind.”
Leyton earned the trust and respect of generations not only because she knows “everyone’s mom and grandma, and child and grandchild,” Wertheimer said. “She ingrained herself in the community because she believes in it. And that’s a beautiful part of the community and what she’s done. She created an environment that has fostered the beginnings of what Jewish life is for a family.”
Nearly 15 years ago, Highland Park resident Lydia Blank met Leyton at a Bach, Beethoven and Brunch event at Mellon Park. Blank had a toddler in tow. Leyton was staffing a Rodef Shalom table at the concert. Blank wasn’t yet ready to commit to sending her daughter to early childhood education, but after chatting with Leyton — who already knew who she and her daughter were — decided to visit Rodef Shalom’s center.
“I was in love with the place as soon as I saw it,” Blank said. “The natural light from the windows, the caring staff, the way she approached us. Mimsie understood what it meant to have a toddler, and what it meant to give your toddler up into the care of other people. She made us feel really comfortable and confident about the decision.”
Blank enrolled her daughter in Rodef Shalom’s preschool. She and her husband joined the congregation and subsequently entrusted their two other children to Leyton and Rodef Shalom’s care.
As the years progressed, Blank and her family became more involved at Rodef Shalom. They attended services, marked the holidays and celebrated family milestones there.
For many of those occasions, Leyton was present, Blank said: “Mimsie is part of our family.”
Weeks ago, Blank and her college-bound daughter were attending a synagogue event where scholarships were being awarded to high school seniors. Several students gathered for a picture. Arms extended across one another. Smiles showcased a moment of elation. Beside the joyful awardees and their siblings was a lifelong educator who understood the value of marking accomplishments, modeling instruction and prioritizing children.
“What I will miss the most are the relationships that I have made with the children and their extended families,” Leyton said. “Together with my excellent teaching staff through the years, we have built a caring and supportive community.”
Rodef Shalom’s leaders, families and clergy bolstered their community by recognizing what’s at the heart of early childhood education, Leyton continued.
“Preschools are really relationship labs,” she said. “If you have good relationships, what you can teach is limitless.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.