Legendary JCC teacher Barbara Cantor is being honored Sunday, Sept. 15 at the West Bloomfield JCC.

By Nancy Solway

Barbara Cantor is a true legend in the eyes of the children and parents she taught and nurtured during her tenure as a respected educator. In December 2018, after 48 years teaching and inspiring at the Jewish Community Center, Barbara, at age 86, retired. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find anyone in the Jewish community who has had a greater impact on young families.

To honor Cantor for her service and commitment, there will be an open house in her honor on Sunday, Sept. 15, from 10 a.m.-noon at the West Bloomfield JCC.

Cantor, a graduate of Wayne State University, began her career as a kindergarten teacher in Detroit. In her second year of teaching, she and her beloved husband, Larry, welcomed their first child, Susie, who was soon joined by three more siblings: Wendy, Robert and Nancy.

Sensing a need for a quality neighborhood preschool program, Barbara opened and operated a nursery school in her basement for eight years while raising her own children. She took a brief sabbatical when she and Larry moved to a bigger home in Farmington Hills. During the hiatus, they welcomed two more children, Jody and Marcy.

In 1971, Cantor was approached by Mort Plotnick, assistant director of the Jewish Community Center, which had received a grant from the University of Michigan to pilot a preschool program for parents and toddlers together, the first of its kind in the country. Plotnick wanted her to develop and lead this program.

The curriculum was intended to guide, teach and mentor parents in how to relate to, teach and parent their child as well as to provide a socially and emotionally engaging, play-filled environment for their toddlers. Cantor created a class that fulfilled that intention while incorporating Jewish values. This pilot became the impetus for many successful parent-toddler curricula nationally.

Barbara Cantor and her daughters
Barbara surrounded by her daughters: Nancy, Marcy, Wendy and Susie. Courtesy of Susie Cantor

Cantor, with her infectious smile, charming wit and unbridled warmth, was a natural leader. The first of these classes opened to mothers and toddlers. They were so popular they were soon offered five days a week. Two teachers were added to meet the demand. Cantor’s classroom was exceptional: hamish, warm, lively and thoroughly entertaining. She taught song, art and Jewish traditions to both parents and children.

In 1976, with the opening of the JCC in West Bloomfield, Cantor toted her menagerie of toys, puppets, books and music to new quarters in the Sarah and Irving Pitt Child Development Center. She expanded class offerings to include father-toddler classes on Sundays, again filling to capacity. As family dynamics changed, she welcomed many grandparents and nannies who accompanied their toddlers as well.

Cantor never missed a class. She was organized, devoted and creative. Each week, she’d present a huge bag filled with props and puppets that helped “tell the story” she shared with her class. The children paid rapt attention to her storytelling while their parents sat in awe. She created a magical experience. Her big blue carpet was a place where lifelong friendships and a love for learning were made.

Over the years, Cantor touched the lives of three generations of families and thousands of children who attended her classes.

In addition to her love of teaching, she always made time to volunteer. She was a regular at the Jewish Film Festival and still assists at every Jewish Book Fair and Bookstock, in the children’s section, of course.

Cantor has made 34 trips to Israel — most of them as a volunteer with SAR-EL, spending three weeks each summer at an army base in a logistics support role. To commemorate each of these trips, she adds a silver bangle bracelet to her wrist as a proud reminder of another year of service.

Cantor is passionate about teaching and volunteerism, but her greatest sense of pride and accomplishment comes from her six talented and creative children, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, the luckiest beneficiaries of her many wonderful gifts.

Please join her family, friends, former students and parents to reminisce and wish her a hearty Todah Rabah on Sept. 15. She’d love to see you there. Details at jccdet.org.

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