Hadassah giving preschoolers Jewish training wheels

You're never too young to start a Jewish education.

That's the credo of Al Galgalim, an early development program for families with young children sponsored by Hadassah International.

How young? Hadassah is set to launch a pilot program for 18- to 24-month-olds from 10:30 a.m. to noon next Friday at the Jewish Family Preschool at San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom, according to Missy Sue Mastel, program facilitation chair.

A separate series of classes for 2- to 5-year-ol kids will also start up next week, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. beginning Tuesday at Parents Place in San Francisco.

Al Galgalim, Hebrew for "training wheels," aims to help families become better able to raise Jewish children, Mastel says.

"We bring in people who may be unaffiliated, or in an interfaith marriage, and give them an opportunity to find Jewish community, with the focus on helping their young children."

Because of the very young ages, the emphasis in the Al Galgalim classes, says Mastel, is on practice, not understanding.

"If you bless candles every week, your 10-month-old daughter will learn to cover her eyes and wave her hands," says Mastel. "She will understand that candles need to be blessed, which will develop her Jewish identity."

Classes meet once a month for nine months, usually tying in to a particular Shabbat practice or holiday. Parents and children do activities together for the first hour, then after a few group songs, parents meet alone with facilitators to talk about the day's lesson, while the kids go off to play.

"We discuss what it means to be a Jew," says Mastel, "how we identify as a group, and how we can come together worldwide as Jews."

The purpose of the "grown-ups only" time is to help families incorporate what they've practiced with their kids and bring it on home.

"Judaism is a home religion," says Mastel. "Home is the place where Judaism grows."

Activities in Al Galgalim are age-appropriate. For Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day), the children make Israeli flags. For Purim, they not only prepare hamantaschen but also make goodie baskets for their neighbors to learn about the spirit of giving.

For Tu B'Shevat this year (Jan. 18), kids will plant parsley seeds in egg cartons.

"The parsley will later be used on their seder table," says Mastel. "The kids feel a lot of pride two months later when they can say, 'I grew that parsley.'"

Shabbat is a crucial component of the Al Galgalim curriculum. "The kids make Kiddush cups out of plastic glasses, pens and glitter," says Mastel. "Then we discuss how beautiful the cup should be, and why."

For very young kids, Mastel feels Shabbat doesn't need to be more than a five-minute ritual. "We do it to teach kids that they do something special on Friday nights," she says. "Consistency matters. If you light candles and bake challah, a child's Jewish identity will form."

Almost as important as the children's Jewish identity is bolstering that of the parents, according to Mastel. "We also try to encourage the parents in our groups to form chavurot and to have a group Shabbat. We want each class to be a core Jewish community."

Better known for its global efforts on behalf of Jewish women, Hadassah International has always concerned itself with broader family issues.

"We have reached out to Jews at various stages of life," says Mastel of the 90-year-old Zionist organization. "We have men associate members, we help Jews become b'nai mitzvah, we teach Hebrew, we teach breast cancer awareness and other women's issues."

Like Hadassah itself, Al Galgalim is nondenominational, welcoming Jewish families of all stripes, affiliated or not.

What's most important to Mastel is establishing and developing that Jewish identity in her young students.

"These kids will carry this forever," she says proudly. "Their Jewish identity stays with them. It's the greatest gift a parent can give to a child — making sure their kids have a sense of who they are."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.