When Alana Weinberg toured Israeli preschools recently with a group of early childhood educators, she was struck by how differently the classrooms were run.
First there was the student-teacher ratio — high, 12 to 15 kids for every instructor, compared to the 7- or 8-to-1 typical in the U.S.
Then there was the teaching style: community-oriented and student-led.
Take davening, for example: When it came time for prayers, the teacher sat in the circle-time area and waited. “She was just waiting patiently. She waited a good, two, three minutes before a child started singing,” said Weinberg, who directs the early childhood program at Stein Yeshiva in Yonkers.
“By that teacher just waiting for the children, she was being very intentional, so the students would lead,” she added.
The opportunity to exchange ideas with Israeli educators is a core component of the trip Weinberg was on, a 10-day trip organized by the fledgling Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute, known as JECELI. Part of a 15-month program, the goal of the Israel visit was to enable educators to explore the role of Israel in Jewish life, think about new ways incorporate Israel education into their curriculum and gain new perspectives on Jewish early childhood education.
JECELI participant Allison Steckley, director of Peninsula Temple Shalom, near San Francisco, said she definitely gained new perspectives during the visit.
“There was such an awesome respect for the children and an unspoken sense of responsibility to take care of one another,” she said.
At one school, for example, one of the kids fell down. But instead of one of the teachers going over to help, they waited.
“Within a minute,” Steckley said, “two of the children came over to him and walked him over to a sink area and gave him a Band-Aid.”
To Lyndall Miller, JECELI’s director, the cooperative atmosphere in the classroom reflects more widespread cultural differences between a country founded by entrepreneurs and one started by kibbutzniks.
“In the U.S. we emphasize the culture of independence, in Israel it’s interdependence,” she said.
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the Jewish Theological Seminary launched JECELI together in May 2012. The nondenominational program brings together new and aspiring preschool directors from across the U.S. for mentoring, professional development and community building. Weinberg’s group of 15 is JECELI’s second class of students. A third cohort will begin in May.
The goal of the Israel trip is to deepen participants’ connection to the Promised Land and discover new ways to bring Israel into the curriculum.
“Our view of Israel education is that it’s not something separate from Jewish education,” said Miller. “What we see embodied in Israel is an expression of Jewish life and culture.”
For Jenna Kalkman-Turner, director of Gam Ami in Whitefish Bay, Wis., the Israel Seminar was her first trip to the Jewish Homeland.
“Up to this point most of my experience [of Israel] had been through photographs or hearing stories. To experience it myself, it was overwhelming,” she said.
Steckley had a similar experience. “Being someone who went to Israel the first time, the connection I was able to make with the history was my own personal Jewish journey,” she said.
Weinstein, on the other hand, came to the program with plenty of experience in Israel. She lived there for a while in high school and for the year before college and visited there many, many times in the summers. But even so, her trip with JECELI completely transformed how she now thinks about bringing Israel into the classroom.
“In our school and in a lot of Orthodox schools we talk about Israel a lot,” she said, “but it’s more about us yearning to be in Israel, and yearning for the Messiah to come, but we don’t really talk about the modern state of Israel.”
Now, she said, “We’re going to try to incorporate Israeli culture and Israeli daily life, so our children to know that there’s this homeland and there’s a really rich history but it’s also a place we can go to now.”
She and her staff have been brainstorming how to incorporate Israel more organically into the curriculum. One idea: place maps, pretend ancient pieces of pottery and other items around the classrooms to pique children’s curiosity.
“We believe that children are capable learners, so that if we provoke their interest they’re going to go deeper into it,” she said.
Another idea: take the unit the classes already do on different types of yarmulkes, but move the context to Israel, to discuss the country’s cultural diversity.
“It’s giving them a sense that Israel is a huge melting pot — that people come from all over with their own sense of history and then they move to Israel and they’re creating a culture there,” she said.
But as deeply moving as the Israel component of the program is, JECELI’s most profound effect could be the relationships that are formed.
“It’s not just the training, it’s also the network of educators that’s developed,” said Dawne Bear Novicoff, who oversees JECELI at the Jim Joseph Foundation, the program’s funder.
The idea that relationships are key to getting people invested in Judaism is on the rise. Last week a study on “JOFEE” programs (Jewish, Outdoors, Food and Environmental Education), which also received funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation, found that “immersive” programs are particularly successful at getting young Jews reengaged with Judaism, in large part because of the deep relationships and communities of peers that are formed.
Such was the case for Weinberg, the Yonkers preschool director. “I came in with blinders on, thinking I’m going to learn about best practices and how to incorporate Judaism in an age-appropriate way. But I didn’t think about the relationships that I would create, which would impact me the most,” she said.
Steckley agreed, saying the community began forming right at orientation.
“Everyone formed instant bonds, which I don’t think I have experienced since Jewish summer camp,” she said. “Now we are constantly calling each other and texting each other. The amount of support I have experienced with these other women — and one man — I think is vital.”
Once the cohorts are in place, JECELI provides a facilitator to keep the community connected, something Weinberg’s group is deeply grateful for.
“I came in thinking it was going to be two years and then it’s going to be over,” she said. “And we’ve all just been awakened in a kind of way and realize this just can’t be it. After the two years it’s not like we’re complete, there’s so much for us to grow and us to do.”
But for the most part, Miller expects the cohorts to be self-sustaining communities. The first class, for example, has a Facebook group, monthly webinars and is planning a retreat in the spring.
“I feel like they’re launched and they know what it feels like being a member of a learning community and the project has given them just enough scaffolding to bring it forward themselves,” Miller said. “That’s what this is about. It’s creating leaders in the field.”