Jerusalem —  Rabbi Tzvi Weiss, who teaches preschool-aged boys in the chasidic Karlin school system, has a degree in special education, but he still felt unequipped for the range of challenges facing preschoolers whose language and social skills were significantly delayed.

“I didn’t know how to teach language or to identify certain problems,” said Weiss, who teaches in one of the most charedi neighborhoods of Jerusalem, where the entrance of every apartment building is filled with baby strollers, and men in black coats and hats hurry down the narrow streets.

Weiss jumped at the opportunity to participate in a three-year pilot program that focuses on developing children’s social skills, emotional intelligence, language skills, expression and interpersonal communication in seven charedi neighborhoods throughout Israel.

With Weiss and his students now back in the classroom for the new year, they will be in the final year of a first-of-its-kind early intervention program that, the program’s creators hope, will soon be expanded to all charedi schools in Israel.

Called a Taste of Honey, the program is implemented by the nonprofit organization Achiya, under the auspices of JDC-Ashalim and the Ministry of Education. Achiya was created by leaders in Bnai Brak, a largely charedi city, to help mainstream charedi schools deal more effectively with childhood learning differences and developmental delays. Early intervention, educators believe, is the best way to do that.

Achiya’s programs have greatly expanded since its launch in 1993. Its facility in Bnai Brak offers paramedical facilities for boys and girls and will soon offer a children’s library. The organization runs a teacher training program with 19 branches that produces “fully certified” male teachers who go on to teach in the insular charedi community.

Most charedi boys schools do not employ female teachers due to norms regarding separation of the sexes, so the training of male teachers addresses a community-wide void, said Yitzhak Levin, Achiya’s cofounder and director.    

“Twenty years ago, the majority of the charedi population believed that formal teachers’ training was superfluous,” Achiya’s website notes. “Ninety percent of the educators in the Talmud Torah system were Torah scholars who had spent years studying in a post-graduate yeshiva, without having received professional training in educational techniques and methodology,” Levin said.

A Taste of Honey grew out of Achiya’s very successful Language Skills Program (also partnered with JDC-Ashalim and the Ministry of Education), a three-year pilot for preschoolers ages 3 to 6. About 1,800 children in 60 preschools in two ultra-Orthodox communities benefited from the program, which ran from 2011-2014. Teachers received intensive training while parents attended workshops and lectures that taught them how to encourage verbal expression. A 2009 Hebrew University study of Achiya’s 2005-2008 early intervention program for at-risk preschool boys found that, compared to a control group, the boys who participated in the program had “significantly superior school achievement” in the majority of learning areas.

By the end of the language program, Achiya professionals had written a teacher’s guide and, in collaboration with the program’s partners, the Ministry of Education and JDC-Ashalim, produced 20 illustrated children’s books in Yiddish for use in Yiddish-speaking kindergartens.

As part of a research project, the Meyers-JDC-Brookdale Institute has been evaluating both programs for their impact on the teachers and children, in order to provide data that will be used to help perfect them.

A Taste of Honey is giving teachers the skills necessary to identify and address not only the children’s language issues but also their developmental, emotional ones.

Eight pedagogical counselors have been working with 84 preschool teachers to help them address social awkwardness, emotional problems and/or developmental/language delays in 2,600 boys. Following the core training the counselors have continued to coach the teachers as they navigate their way in the classroom. They help the teachers design and equip the classroom area in a way that encourages verbal interaction, both among the children as well as between the children and their teacher.

At the conclusion of the three-year pilot the counselors will continue working within the Ministry of Education’s early childhood education department to continue the program’s goals.

“The goal is for the program to become part of the curriculum – by the Ministry of Education with government funding – for all charedi kindergartens,” said Tzivia Greenberg, Achiya’s director of resource development.

During a visit to the Karlin school, Tzaly Perlstein, who coordinates the Taste of Honey program, said that language skills are especially important for charedi boys because they need to read Hebrew, Aramaic and often Yiddish by the middle of elementary school.

“We realized that if you strengthen the foundations of at least one language, it’s a good foundation to build on,” Perlstein said.

Eight pedagogical counselors have been working with 84 preschool teachers to help them address social awkwardness, emotional problems and/or developmental/language delays in 2,600 boys.

Although the teachers who participated in the Language Skills Program acquired important skills, Perlstein said, they felt it was missing a vital component. “They said they weren’t taught anything about the children’s emotional needs.”

Rabbi Yosef Shulem Ganz, the Karlin school’s energetic principal, said his teachers feel they have the tools needed to work with preschoolers who the school might not have accepted in the past.

“At the beginning of the year we had a child who we felt needed to be in a language-oriented preschool for children with special needs. But we accepted him because we saw we could handle him, and his parents felt putting him in a special school would stigmatize him,” the principal said.

Recently, Ganz said, “I spoke with his mother and told her, ‘You were right to keep him here.’”

Ganz said that when the boy initially came to the school, “he couldn’t understand instructions. But when the teacher asked each boy in the class to draw a picture of himself, this boy drew a picture full of emotion. This was a boy who didn’t dance with the other boys. He stood apart. But now he participates. I think it’s all because of the teachers’ workshops.”

Yitzhak Levin, Achiya’s cofounder and director, is proud that the program is creating change from within the charedi community.

“Now we have many charedi professionals who can identify and address what is lacking in the charedi educational system and find the appropriate solutions. And, most importantly, with the hechsher [kosher approval] of the biggest rabbis.”

Weiss, a Karlin teacher, said he spends much less time engaged in front-of-the-classroom teaching.

During a lesson on prayer he asked his students to color in a picture of an old man crying during a Purim Megillah reading, and asked them why the man might be crying.

Then he asked his students, “What is prayer?” “How do you feel when you pray?”

The boys thought for a while and then offered answers like “happy” and “grown up, like my Abba.”

Weiss said it was “very satisfying” to see the children able to verbalize their emotions. They expressed empathy for others. It left him with a warm feeling — “leibidik,” he said.