FOR 31 years, Judy Callahan has been Executive Director of B’nai Simcha Jewish Community Preschool in Pasadena. Founded in 1981 their stated mission is to offer a warm and nurturing preschool experience in a Jewish environment. B’nai Simcha is the only Jewish preschool in the West San Gabriel Valley. The school provides morning preschool and afternoon extended care to 50-plus children ages two to six. Students come from all over the San Gabriel Valley and from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds. B’nai Simcha is the start of many children’s scholastic adventures. As such, it has taken a dedicated educator of unique and extraordinary skills to head this school. That is why, Callahan was honored at a special celebration for her work and the foundation she built to help ensure the school’s future.
“Anyone who knows the greater Pasadena Jewish community knows that it’s inclusive, vibrant and family-based,” said Amy Whitman Richardson. “That is what keeps multiple generations coming back to congregate at the same Temple and enroll in the same Jewish schools their families have been engaged with for decades.”
“Judy has always played a huge part in fostering that sense of belonging and community,” added Richardson. “Her volunteerism, teaching, directorship, Board activities, and even her own involvement as a parent (and now a grandparent), are why after over thirty years she was celebrated for those efforts. We all wanted to honor her for her personal achievements but also for what she has selflessly given towards the successful growth of our community and B’nai Simcha Preschool.”
Richardson is one of the many former students who have Callahan to thank for their connection to Judaism. “She knew me when I sported pigtails all the way through my confirmation from religious school. And now, we serve as peers on non-profit boards while swapping “war stories” about our children.”
While Callahan and her family moved to the Pasadena area in the late 70s, she has been involved in early education in a variety of venues throughout her life. After graduating Westchester High in 1967, Callahan went to spend six months in Israel for both a work/ulpan experience. However, when interrupted by the Six Day War, the ulpan part took a backseat, enabling Callahan to exclusively work in a kibbutz with children. Afterwards she returned to California, where she continued educating children as a religious school instructor while graduating from UCLA.
“I cannot tell you how important preschool is,” states Callahan. “For as children get older, it is vital to ensure that they have a core group of Jewish friends with whom they can share their experiences.”
Summers were spent teaching drama at the Idyllwild School of the Arts and, upon post-graduation, her time was split between teaching at Temple Ramat Zion and employment at Beverly Hills Parks and Recreation.
In 1972 the city of Beverly Hills received permission to open a preschool in Coldwater Canyon Park, and Callahan was offered the job of getting it up and running. At the same time, she met and then married, Phil Callahan. Upon completing his PhD in 1974, they went off to Europe and settled in Oxford. Callahan broadened her professional portfolio by working at the Graduate Department of Social Work, and worked for the two women leading the cause for Early Educational Programming throughout England. In addition, she furthered her experience as a religious school educator at the Oxford Jewish Synagogue.
The couple returned to Pasadena in 1976, where in Callahan’s words, “it was challenging to have a Jewish home.” But they did, and along the way Callahan’s passion for early education developed into her own academic pursuit. While teaching at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center’s Louis B. Silver Religious School she also earned a Master’s in Human Development at Pacific Oaks College. Not long afterwards, Callahan began teaching a Mommy and Me class for Temple Shalom and in 1983, she became a teacher and started what would be a 34-year legacy at B’nai Simcha.
For many years she continued teaching at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center and running the Midrasha Program, a combined Confirmation program for the synagogues in the San Gabriel Valley. Callahan oversaw the move from the Arcadia to Pasadena site, was president of the BJE Early Ed Directors Group and Co-Chaired the national CAJE conference of Jewish Educators in Fort Collins, Co. She is also part of the planning committee for Pasadena Early Childhood Education Director’s group and is working with Shared Service of the Foothills for ECE.
Aside from her numerous academic and professional achievements, Callahan is being celebrated for her guidance in growing the Jewish community, her integrity and perhaps most of all, helping to shape the young minds of thousands of students.
Tanya Schwied is a contributing writer for Jlife Magazine.