If you were thinking of opening a kindergarten, then Keren and Assaf Ben Ezra would be your go-to couple. The Anglo-Israeli husband and wife run a trio of nurseries in London, all of which have earned an outstanding grade from Ofsted.
Mrs Ben Ezra began as a child-minder with three children in 2004. They started the first Keren’s Nursery in a converted cricket pavilion in Hampstead Garden Suburb in 2010, followed up with a second at the independent Belsize Square Synagogue two years later and in 2016 came the third at the Holland Park Sephardi Synagogue.
The Ofsted rating speaks for itself. Children gain a “superb range of skills”, said one inspector. The Ben Ezras have found a winning formula in their culturally Jewish offering with an Israeli flavour.
Of the three enterprises, Holland Park was the most ambitious. The charming synagogue founded by Jews from Salonica and Turkey recently celebrated its 90th anniversary. Much of the Jewish population in the vicinity had moved on but when French families with young children started settling in London, the synagogue spotted an opportunity.
“We considered starting a nursery ourselves,” said Holland Park vice-president Yves Shama, “but little did we know what a challenge it is to run one.”
By happy coincidence, the Ben Ezras were looking for a location to extend their portfolio. “We did a lot of research which areas were possible,” said Mr Ben Ezra. “When we contacted the synagogue, it was very opportune. They were looking to do it themselves but they didn’t have the knowhow.”
The couple invested heavily in the infrastructure, creating outdoor play areas, renovating a whole floor, installing equipment and furniture including CCTV —“we are very concerned with health and safety,” he said.
“Now we are getting to the point where we are reaping the fruits of our labour,” he added. “We’re close to doubling the number of children in a year and near to our capacity of 60.”
Whereas the overwhelmingly majority of children at the North-West London nurseries are Jewish, at Holland Park the figure is around two thirds.
The challenge was to attract what a local Chabad rabbi called “undercover Jews” who, unlike those in some North-West London districts, deliberately chose to be outside a Jewish bubble.
“It takes time,” Mr Ben Ezra said. “They realise the fact we are in a synagogue doesn’t mean we are frum. Keren’s Nursery operates just as any secular Jewish nursery would in Israel. So gradually two children became four, four became eight and word of mouth spread.”
There’s kiddush every Friday and festivals are celebrated with gusto. Ivrit words are sprinkled among the English. When Mr Ben Ezra arrived at Holland Park one day as children sat down to their vegetarian lunch, supervised by the Sephardi Kashrut authority, he greeted them, “Shalom everyone. Bon appetit, bete’avon.”
While they are gratified by the growing Jewish numbers, the presence of non-Jewish children is welcome too. “The fact they choose to put their children here is a great honour,” he said.
The inspector who visited Holland Park was impressed with the staff’s recognition of diversity. “Every month we choose a language that relates to one of the children’s background — French, Spanish, Portuguese,” Mr Ben Ezra said. “Teachers learn some basic vocabulary, we bring in parents or grandparents to read stories, we do special foods.”
As for future plans, the couple hope to expand the intake at Belsize Park, where there is a long waiting list, in September; and they have their sights on a property in Whetstone.
Meanwhile Keren’s Nursery continues to help rejuvenate Holland Park Synagogue. “It’s nice to hear the sound of young children,” Rabbi Abraham Lavi said.