by Helen Cohen
Prior to establishing the Frances Jacobson Early Childhood Center at Temple Israel in Boston in 1994, I served as a director of another synagogue preschool and as coordinator of the primary grades in a Religious School. Despite my commitment to the education of Jewish children, and the work done on their behalf, I had never had the opportunity to visit Israel until many years later into my career and work with young families.
The integration of Judaics into our curriculum is a very high priority for me, so much so that we have a Judaic coordinator on our staff. Approximately 16 or so years ago, I responded to an invitation from Ina Regosin at Hebrew College to join other directors to study Torah at that institution. Despite my initial protestations because of my busy schedule, I agreed to enroll. At the end of our fifth year together, we decided that we should enhance our education by studying in Israel.
A few of us were assigned the task of planning the trip where we would continue with our studies as well as spend some time touring. We had arranged to study at The Pardes Institute and were trying to determine where else we should go and how we would pay for this learning experience. It was at that time that we first learned of the Boston-Haifa Connection.
Up until approximately 12 years ago, there was no connection between Boston and Haifa for early childhood educators, despite the fact that this program existed for many other Jewish educators. The BJE with Naomi Chernin at the helm of the early childhood division, played a pivotal role in helping to plan and orchestrate subsequent trips to Israel.
I must admit that at first I was somewhat reluctant to go to Haifa, as I felt that we would be best served by staying in Jerusalem and learning more about its history and historical sites. It was therefore with this skeptical attitude that I first arrived in Haifa. I vividly recall our first meeting with the Israeli educators who were so excited to see us, welcome us and embrace us. What an extraordinary experience awaited the Boston educators! We visited a wide variety of classrooms in Haifa and began to share educational philosophies, curriculum and methodology. In addition to the invaluable information and rich learning opportunities we collectively gleaned from one another, what stood out above all, was the extraordinary friendships that were forged that still exist until today.
I feel so privileged to have been partnered with Hila Glanz, who is a supervisor of many directors in Haifa. Her vast experience in the field of early education which mirrored mine as well, afforded both of us the opportunity to exchange ideas on many different levels. Both Hila and I are also educators at teacher training colleges, providing us with a great deal of mutual understanding. Osnat Horev was another outstanding educator whose classroom we visited. The work that she did to develop an aesthetically pleasing environment, not unlike the classrooms in Reggio Emilia in Italy, and her use of recycled materials have provided important models for us to emulate. It is difficult for me to highlight just a few of the educators in Haifa as there were many superb teachers who had so much to teach and share with us. Visiting with Arab educators in their schools and conversely welcoming them to our schools was also a wonderful collective learning experience.
Trying to distill all my emotions into this brief description, and attempting to relate just how powerful was my experience in Israel, is truly challenging! Whether I had the pleasure of observing Ethiopian Israeli immigrants in their classrooms, visiting Kibbutz schools or watching teachers patiently working with highly involved students with special needs, I came away with a healthy respect for the work carried on in the educational system in Haifa. Likewise, I feel that when the Israeli educators visited our diverse schools here in Boston, they too derived a great deal of benefit from these mutual interactions. The learning opportunities for both groups, Israelis and Bostonians alike are immense.
I felt the impact from this exceptional exchange almost immediately. My trips to Israel both on my own initiative and through the Boston-Haifa Connection, motivated me to continue to study and learn even more about Eretz Israel, its educational system and what I could bring to my staff and students. It never ceases to amaze me how much I derive from each visit and how many new and exciting pedagogical ideas I am able to bring back with me. There appears to be no end to the learning opportunities available.
I was so fortunate to be able to meet and learn from an amazing Israeli educator, Rami Katz. He has devoted most of his professional career to helping students with special needs. Clearly, spending a few days with Rami and visiting classrooms where his philosophy is applied has only served to whet my appetite in wanting more. After returning to Boston, I organized several materials-making workshops where parents and staff helped to create materials directly influenced by Rami Katz. We put together a PowerPoint presentation based on Rami’s philosophy and invited the families in our school to attend. The parents were so impressed and grateful to understand the reasoning behind many of the materials and activities that were being utilized by our students. To this day, the influence of Rami Katz is felt in classrooms at our center. Many educators from surrounding schools, both public and private, have favorably commented on the various activities we have implemented to help students with special needs.
Additionally, I had the opportunity to visit Gan Milo and learn from a number of excellent Creative Arts educators. The impact that Ronit Offer and Rachel Solomon have had on me is keenly felt in the work that is now being carried out at our school. The many photos I took and subsequently made into a Power Point presentation served to inspire my staff to apply much of what I saw and learned while in Israel. My enthusiasm for working with the Israeli educators was and is contagious. The many workshops that I held for my staff upon my return from Haifa has served to motivate them to integrate the study of Israel on many different levels into their curriculums, not only for a two-week period around Yom Ha’ Atzmaut, but also throughout the year. Nevertheless, what made the biggest difference was when members of my staff had the opportunity to join me in partnering with Haifa educators in Israel and experiencing the power of this exchange firsthand.
Fortunately, the Boston-Haifa Connection has made it possible for five of our educators out of a staff of twenty to travel to Israel; three of whom had never been there before. One only has to visit our center and each of the classrooms to see the enormous impact these visits have had upon our staff, our students and their parents.
While I have primarily focused on trips taken by the Boston educators to Israel, I would like to add that welcoming the Israeli teachers into our classrooms has also proven to be enormously helpful and mutually beneficial. A few years ago, I agreed to host the collective group of both Israeli and Boston educators at our site. The Israelis who had trained and worked with Rami Katz prepared an interactive workshop in an evening where we could experience many of the activities that were developed to help children with special needs. What a constructive evening this was for us all! Sharing the work that we do in our classrooms with our Israeli partners has proven to be both an informative and powerful experience as well.
My travels to Israel have personally motivated me to take my family there for our granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah. Additionally, one staff member who had the opportunity of traveling to Israel through the Boston-Haifa Connection encouraged her daughter to apply to the Taglit-Birthright Israel program. She felt it would be as life altering an experience for her child as it was for her.
The Boston-Haifa Connection is important to Jewish educators on so many different levels. In an age where inter-faith marriages are common and the connection to Israel does not appear to be as strong for many of the younger families as it was in days gone by, we need to do everything in our power to continue to make these visits to Israel for our educators possible. In doing so, I am confident that their enthusiasm and knowledge will be transmitted and shared.
Based upon my personal and professional experience I am convinced that the benefit of this exchange far exceeds the monetary investment involved. I urge CJP to not only continue to sponsor and support this program, but to find ways to expand it so that more educators can travel to Israel.
Helen Cohen is the founding director of the Frances Jacobson Early Childhood Center at Temple Israel Boston.