Teachers bring Israel to preschool, engaging the senses

At Temple Beth Jacob's preschool in Redwood City, a child pushes a message into a replica of the Western Wall while another draws a picture of picking olives to make oil for the ancient Temple's menorah.

Meanwhile, at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, Susan Aronow, whose classroom boasts a Western Wall built with newspaper-stuffed lunch bags, maintains a pen-pal relationship between her preschoolers and kids in Kibbutz Amir, in Israel's northern Galilee.

The California kids send Ghirardelli chocolates and "lots of pictures and drawings," said Aronow, and the Israelis reciprocate. Parents also have gotten into the act, collecting stuffed animals to send to children in the besieged region "who spend long hours in the bomb shelter.

"This year, especially, we wanted to give them a hug from us," Aronow added. While preschoolers are not taught about the crisis, their parents' awareness helps to drive the importance of Israel home.

Why should 3-year-olds think about Israel? How can preschool teachers integrate Israel into their pupils' lives?

With school out, Jewish educators from throughout the Bay Area gathered recently to address those questions and come up with strategies.

"We would like Israel to be a daily presence in our children's lives as opposed to an occasional visitor," said Riva Gambert, director of community programs for the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay and a longtime educator. "Israel should be an integral part, as opposed to something that is plunked down in conjunction with a holiday or at Israel Independence Day," she said. It's not simply a matter of planting seeds at Tu B'Shevat or making flags.

With that in mind, organizers brought to the retreat Shira Ackerman-Simchovitch, the early childhood education director of the Jewish Agency for Israel in Jerusalem. The event was sponsored by the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Israel Center and the Israel task force of the East Bay federation.

"There is no part of Jewish curriculum that is not connected to Israel," said Avital Plan, an Israeli-born early childhood education consultant for BJE. From holidays to rituals, the elements of Judaism either "emerged in Israel or have a strong reference to it. Any Jewish education worth its name has to have an Israel component integrated into it."

While a number of preschool teachers are incorporating Wall-related activities, others are organizing "virtual trips" to Israel, complete with passports, according to Gambert. In the process, kids learn about the weather in Israel, the geography and aspects of Israel's different cities and regions.

Israeli parents also get into the act. "A lot of times we forget we have wonderful resources, an Israeli community in the Bay Area, very willing and eager to share experiences and bring in things from their homes whether from antiquity, Israeli T-shirts with Hebrew writing, or simply to tell stories about their lives," Gambert said. "By humanizing Israel, it becomes more real."

Pilgrimage festivals also work well, according to Plan, who said very young children develop a "sense of awe" and pageantry as they bring fruit or make jam, emulating their ancestors who brought gifts to the Temple. They become "grateful for the gifts of the land."

Other teachers have incorporated the Seven Species of biblical fruits and grains — figs, dates (honey), grapes or grapevines, barley, wheat, pomegranates and olives — into Shavuot celebrations or classroom murals.

"What we say now in early childhood education is the environment is the third teacher," said Plan. "By putting symbols in the environment [of children], they have encounters."

Since her visit to Israel with other preschool educators a couple of years ago, Aronow has filled her classroom with photos and mementos. "During 'calendar/weather' time we also talk about the Hebrew year and month, then find out what the weather is in Israel," she wrote in an article on the BJE Web site. "I have learned a few phrases in Hebrew so I can welcome the children, and everyone enjoys counting all the members of our group using Hebrew numbers."

And because the pathway to love is often through the senses, she writes, "Cooking, tasting, and smelling are a big part of an Israel experience, so I try to find recipes that are authentic and easy for the children to prepare."

Like Aronow, Susanne Goldman, director of Temple Sinai's preschool, hopes to establish a pen-pal relationship with a school in Israel, and also discuss such things as the weather and daily life there, then and now.

"Our whole theme for the year will be Israel," she said in an e-mail, and it will extend far beyond the holidays.

"We can't expect the kids to understand the destruction of the Temple at Chanukah time if they don't understand what the Temple represented to our people in the past. To take it further, how can the kids understand our people, if they don't understand what life was like long ago? They need to be exposed to what homes, people, foods, clothing, prayer, even problem-solving approaches were like. Our curriculum can move and flow around all of these concepts throughout the Jewish year."

Biweekly parent education will also focus on Israel.

Local educators emphasize that they don't bring the Mideast crisis into preschool classrooms, focusing instead on tradition, pageantry and positive encounters.

"The Jewish narrative can be woven into so many moments in the year," said Plan, "building a sense of connection, Jewish peoplehood. [Teachers are] doing a number of things to make children realize Israel is an important place." And when a teacher imbues the experience with feeling — whether it's making olive oil or leading children into a pretend airplane for a journey to Israel and kissing the ground upon arrival — "children pick up on that."

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].