Teacher, teach thyself!

Sharon Spenser, a teacher from Weschester, N.Y., laughs with Israeli students at the Ronit Kindergarten in Jerusalem on June 21. (Brian Hendler)

Sharon Spenser, a teacher from Weschester, N.Y., laughs with Israeli students at the Ronit Kindergarten in Jerusalem on June 21. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, June 19 (JTA) — The nursery school teachers from New York found their places on the rugged, Herodian-era stone stairs and learned that it was via these stairs that Jewish pilgrims would leave the biblical Temple centuries ago. For many of the teachers, it was their first trip to Israel, an experience they’ll bring back to their classrooms, where Jewish preschoolers often get their first taste of what it means to be a Jew. “I feel very fortunate,” Enid Roth said as she walked through Jerusalem’s Old City. “Even though I’ve been a nursery school teacher for almost 20 years, I was not a person so versed in Jewish history and aspects of Judaism.” “I think I can now make it come more alive for them,” she said of the three- and four-year-olds she teaches in Long Island. The group of some 120 early-childhood teachers from Jewish schools in the greater New York area is on a 10-day trip designed to enhance their connection to the Jewish state and the Jewish people. The experience is expected to help them strengthen the Jewish identity of their students and their students’ families. The trip is part of an ongoing educational program called Project Engaje, which stands for Enrich, Nurture and Grow through Adult Jewish Education. The program includes 250 teachers from 11 schools who have met weekly throughout the past year to study Jewish texts, holidays and history. The program is sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York in partnership with the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York and the Suffolk Association of Jewish Educational Services. The program is a two-year project made possible by a grant of more than $1 million. In the second year, which will begin this fall, the teachers will learn how to incorporate their Jewish learning and their experience in Israel into their teaching. “Early-childhood education is finally being recognized for the importance it holds as a gateway for the Jewish family. It’s the first time the family has a chance to focus on the meaning of Judaism,” said Cheryl Meskin, director of the educational board’s early-childhood education division. The teachers will be touring the country and meeting colleagues who teach early education in Israel. Among those on the trip is Rachel Gurevitz, a rabbinical student from Hebrew Union College who taught adult-education classes to the teachers this past year. The teachers she met with are interested in studying different topics, ranging from the Jewish life cycle to the history of modern Zionism. Like many American Jews, the teachers had limited Jewish education, Gurevitz noted. “There are too many Jews walking around with a 13-year-old’s understanding of what Judaism is. A lot of adults have not had a chance to learn,” she said. For children, “these teachers are the first point of educational contact outside of the home,” she continued. “Now, when they tell the story of Chanukah, they will have seen the site of the Temple.” Cheryl Karp is director of the Hewlett-East Rockaway Jewish Center, where she oversees a staff of teachers from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist streams. Weekly study sessions with her staff of 28 have made them appreciate each other more as teachers and Jews, and she has been taken aback by the staff’s thirst for knowledge, she said. “They want more. They don’t want to leave,” she said of the classes. Being in Israel has been a deeply moving experience for Karp and the eight teachers from her staff joining her on the trip. “We keep pinching ourselves that we’re really here,” she said, noting that they were especially moved to observe Shabbat in Jerusalem and see how the whole city prepares and then seems to rest in unison. Their Shabbat included going to synagogues across the city, doing Israeli folk dancing and performing the Havdalah ceremony at the Western Wall. Isabel Schein, a consultant to several Manhattan Jewish preschools and who was a participant on the trip, spoke of the importance of the connection to Israel as a component of Jewish education today. “You have to come here, you have to feel it if you want to pass it on to the kids,” she said. “Transmitting these feelings will be essential in preserving the connection of the Diaspora community to Israel,” she added — noting that when you teach children, you also teach their parents.

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