Back to School | Inspiring visit to Israel gives Jewish educators fresh ideas

Seven early childhood educators from the Bay Area’s Jewish community are working to implement lessons they learned during a trip to Israel earlier this year.

The 10-day visit was organized locally by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and aimed at connecting Bay Area educators with their Israeli counterparts and observing their work. The Bay Area cohort was part of a group of 25 Jewish early childhood educators from across the U.S. on the trip.

Janet Harris, director of the federation’s Early Childhood Education Initiative, led the group of six educators from Jewish preschools and congregations, as well as a teacher from Chabad. Harris called the experience “magical.”

“It was so inspiring for me as a leader,” she said, “because the Israeli government is really invested in early childhood education. It’s mandatory there from age 3 [as opposed to 6 in California], there are so many grant opportunities for innovative teachers, and you just get the sense that they value young children in Israel in a way that I don’t think our culture has caught up with yet.”

According to a 2012 study by the Economist on early education internationally, Israel ranked 23rd overall, followed by the United States, which was tied for 24th.

The teachers on the ECEI trip visited a wide range of educators. On a trip to a Druze village in the north of Israel, teachers learned about programs for Jewish, Muslim and Druze children. At another Jewish school, the group learned about programming for 3- and 4-year-olds that is taught through the lens of archaeology.

Harris added that the diversity of the Israeli educators and institutions — such as the woman who ran an all-girls Muslim study center, and the priest in charge of early childhood education at a church in Jerusalem’s Old City — made it all the more interesting.

Teachers from the Bay Area cohort were required to implement some kind of follow-up programming at their respective schools and congregations.  

“Our group really bonded,” said Harris, noting one common refrain from those in the group was “I can’t wait to bring this back to the classroom!”

Janet Harris gets creative tips from Israeli artist David Moss at Kol HaOt, a Jerusalem-based center for Jewish educational art programs.

It was the incorporation of archaeology in the classroom at Kibbutz Nir David that most fascinated Adam Lowy, a teacher and ECE resource specialist at S.F. Congregation Emanu-El’s preschool. Besides integrating archaeology throughout the school year, there is a dig site outside.

Aside from the tangible teaching techniques that he was exposed to, Lowy echoed Harris’ assertion that there is a philosophical difference in the way children are treated in Israel versus the United States.

“The children of Israel are honored more than the children here,” Lowy said. “They’re treated as human beings, respectfully, whereas here we’re trying to pacify and occupy them.”

Since his return from the February trip, Lowy held a staff meeting with fellow educators, showed photos from his trip, shared his “epiphany” on the contrast between Israel and American childhood education, and asked how “we can honor kids more.”

The trip was funded as part of a 3-year grant from the S.F.-based Jim Joseph Foundation. The local educators traveled with the Jewish Early Child-hood Education Leadership Institute, a collaborative project of Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. n

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a freelance reporter. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.