CAI renovation to honor Lynne Falkow-Strauss

(L-R) Rabbi Robert Eisen, CAI students, Lynne Falkow-Strauss, Marianne Langer and Stephanie Roberts at the June 6 groundbreaking for the Lynne Falkow-Strauss Foyer and Courtyard. (Yvonne Ethier)

Congregation Anshei Israel is recognizing Lynne Falkow-Strauss, director of its Esther B. Feldman Preschool/Kindergarten for 45 years, by creating a new courtyard and foyer in her name. The beloved educator, who has welcomed multiple generations of students, will be honored in a unique way that reflects her leadership style. By creating a warm and welcoming entrance to the school and the synagogue’s administrative offices, the project reflects the values that Lynne has exemplified throughout her tenure at CAI.

“Lynne is a strong, but quiet leader who exudes a peaceful and calming influence on parents and students,” says Sarah Artzi, a past chair of the school’s parent action committee. Like many other synagogue members, Artzi grew up with Falkow-Strauss in Tucson and sent her three children to the school. She ultimately worked with Falkow-Strauss on a professional level at CAI as a past director of its Religious School.

Rabbi Robert Eisen says, “Lynne is more than the director, she is the soul of the school, surrogate mother and grandmother for so many. She has built our school into a family, such that the school’s tagline ‘Where the experiences never end’ is the stuff out of which our core memories — Jewish memories — have been created as well.”

The entrance to the school — both inside and outside — has served as a transitional area for parents and students to gather and talk after the formal end of school. With a few chairs inside and only a pony wall to sit upon outside, adjacent to the large parking lot, people would socialize in an area that was less than optimal. The new design will include a safe and secure separation from the parking area, xeriscaping, artificial turf for a play area, a meandering path, new seating and shade structures.

“Having a place to gather, create relationships and nurture our community,” is how CAI’s Board President Stephanie Roberts describes the vision for the project. It also incorporates Jewish values, she adds, citing Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “Honor another’s dignity as if it were your own.” Roberts explains that the preschool director treats everyone as if they were precious. “You feel better about yourself when you talk with Lynne, which is so important when dealing with children and their parents,” she says. Whether calming a new preschooler or an anxious parent, she notes, Falkow-Strauss holds everyone’s dignity as paramount.

The congregation’s building is 47 years old and the school/office entrance has been the most heavily used. Although the synagogue sanctuary has a separate doorway, 90 percent of people coming to CAI use this entrance to the building.

Phil Pepper, head of the project committee, explains that the foyer has been known as the “fishbowl” because of the double glass doors on both ends of the space. Instead of being merely a pass-through, the new foyer will feature a separate door to the Women’s League Judaica Gift Shop, and will have seating where people can work on their computers or simply relax. Pepper added that the courtyard will feature a hummingbird garden and a walkway consisting of bricks and pavers purchased by congregants and preschool and kindergarten families, past and present. These amenities will enhance the entrance, which serves as a gathering place not only for parents and children, but also visitors to the office and library. “Now this important area will be more welcoming, intentional and purposeful,” says Pepper.

The enhancement of the physical space reflects and reinforces the many innovative educational programs that Falkow-Strauss has developed over the years. With a degree in child and family development from the University of Arizona, she has strived to develop the school’s offerings as the needs of the community have grown and changed. Creative movement, Spanish, art and science are all part of the curriculum, as well as programs such as “Dad and Me” and “Mom and Me” breakfasts, Tot Shabbats and Jewish holiday celebrations. Parents are often invited to see the children perform songs and to help prepare meals. The stability of the staff — some of whom have taught at the school for 20 to 30 years — adds to the sense of community. The school has received two Solomon Schecter Awards for Excellence from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and three teachers have been recognized for excellence by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.

Many of the teachers have a close connection with Falkow-Strauss and her family. Her father, Maurice Falkow, was the cantor at CAI for 40-plus years, and there is a social room named after him at CAI. Ronnie Miller, the kindergarten class teacher, knew Falkow-Strauss’ “Uncle Manny” as Rabbi Emanuel Rackman in Far Rockaway, N.Y. Rabbi Ruven Barkan, education and youth director, was in a play group as a child with Falkow-Strauss’ daughter. Falkow-Strauss encourages staff to bring their passions and gifts to the classroom. Says Rabbi Barkan, “She has a haimish (homey) style of running things; it’s like a family.”

“I am honored by this tribute, and the appreciation shown by friends, families and staff,” says Falkow-Strauss. “But more importantly, I am pleased that the new courtyard will not only be beautiful, but that it will encourage people to linger, extending the warmth of CAI.”

A groundbreaking for the project was held on Tuesday, June 6. The Lynne Falkow-Strauss Foyer and Courtyard will be dedicated at a ceremony on Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, in conjunction with CAI’s annual “Welcome Back” party.

Ed Leven, Ph.D., is a freelance writer, former coordinator of JFSA Pride, and a retired professor of health care administration in Tucson.