A New, Unusual, and Miraculous Israel Experience

April 26, 2018

A New, Unusual, and Miraculous Israel Experience

By Carly Schwartz, Senior Director of Early Childhood Education Center 

Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam she’he’eyanu v’qi’y’manu v’higiyanu lazman ha’zeh.  Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, Ruler of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion. 

The Schecheyanu blessing is recited to celebrate special occasions, it is said to be thankful for new and unusual experiences.  This seems like the perfect way to start the story of my trip to Israel – a new and unusual experience!

My trip to Israel, while not a first-time experience — this was my fifth trip to Israel — certainly was unusual!  I was among 15 other Early Childhood professionals who attended The JCC Association Early Childhood Educators Seminar – a personal and professional journey to Israel.  The seminar provided an insider’s look at Israel – her history, her development, and current events all on the eve of her 70th birthday. We travelled Israel with the lens of early childhood education – met specialists, visited preschools and shared ideas. We explored Israel while looking at ways of sharing Israel with our staff, families and preschoolers.

The other people that joined me from Israel were from all over North America – including Canada!  We all hold different roles in Early Childhood – directors, assistant directors, curriculum directors, and teachers!  Our varied professional experiences allowed for an enriching experience and dynamic conversations.  While we all shared a passion for Jewish Early Childhood Education, we came from different religious and racial backgrounds – another aspect that made this experience diverse not only professionally, but also personally.  Collectively, our journey was meant to make a connection between Israel and the important work we do in our JCC Early Childhood Education Centers.

As I mentioned, this trip was my fifth Israel experience, and one of the best!  As a senior in high school I travelled to Israel with Alexander Muss High School in Israel.  As my first experience in Israel, HSI definitely created a love for Israel that is still with me today.  As a freshman in college, I went back to Israel as a participant on Jewish Leadership Institute – another remarkable experience.  Both of these experiences in Israel were incredible, but I was seeing Israel through the eyes of a teenager – I didn’t realize until my third trip to Israel that there would be a difference.  As a JCC Professional (a Teen Director, to be exact) I joined a cohort of JCC Teen Professionals on the JCCA Merrin Seminar in Israel.  This trip allowed me to see Israel through the eyes of an Israeli Teen (but as an adult) and helped me find ways to bring Israel home to our middle school and high school age children.  This was the first trip that allowed me to travel around on my own and experience Israel as an adult. 

A year later I was fortunate to take a group of teenagers to Israel.  Can you imagine?  I was 26 years old and I brought 10 teenagers with me to Israel… thinking back on it now I cannot believe it! 

This last trip to Israel, as I said earlier, was unusual.  We ate dinner with the chefs of Yerucham, we hiked up Masada and floated in the Dead Sea, we explored the sights and smells of Mahane Yehuda – an incredible marketplace in Jerusalem, we visited the Path to Peace Wall at Moshav Ha’asara, we visited many preschools including one in an all Arab neighborhood, we delivered Mishloach Manot (Purim gift baskets) to a battered women’s shelter, and even explored an Early Childhood Education Center on a Kibbutz! 

We were given a journal at the start of our trip and here is what I wrote after visiting an Orthodox Preschool “Wow!  Today we were given the opportunity to observe a preschool in Israel.  It was a true example of a program that puts children at the center and treats them as capable and competent.  Everything in the classroom was so beautiful and so accessible for the children – they floated from center to center with no teacher instructions (and no behavioral issues, I might add).  The children played beautifully and seemed to have meaningful interactions with each other.  Those that came in with breakfast were given the opportunity to sit and eat whenever they were ready – there was no set time for eating.  There was literacy everywhere and you could really see how the children were absorbing it.  The children wrote so beautifully in their journals and they would pull words they didn’t know from their word wall to copy and incorporate it into what they were writing.  There were natural items everywhere.  The dress-up area was so ornate (as to depict royalty – we were visiting during Purim).  The children had a true sense of pride in their classroom!”

It is nearly impossible to pick a favorite moment from this experience – as each was special in its own way.  However, our visit to the Kibbutz Preschool is something I will never forget.  We were able to explore Junkyard Playgrounds and see how they are different than the playgrounds we have in the US.  Instead of climbing equipment and various toys, playgrounds in Israel are often furnished with “junk” to help children challenge themselves, play cooperatively, and use their imaginations.  This junk isn’t really junk, it is simply items from your home that you are no longer using.  It is not unusual to find an old oven, old mattresses, a broken tractor or an old washing machine on a junkyard playground – and what is amazing is watching children interact with these items that they are so used to seeing in their everyday life.  One person (that did not have much money) had the idea to use everyday items in their playground rather than furnish the area with high cost playground equipment and as Inbar Arieli wrote “Thus, the junkyard playground concept was born and from it an entire educational philosophy grew: Playing with junk.  To this day, throughout Israel, you can find junkyards in daycare facilities, preschools, and kindergartens.  Aesthetically pleasing it is not.”  While it’s hard to imagine – you can take my word for it, they are amazing!

My biggest takeaway from this experience was to be present, live in the moment, and do not miss out on the miracles that surround our everyday life.  Our trip started with a discussion about miracles – noticing them in the most unlikely places.  We happened to be in the Negev and we were marveling at a stream that was created by rain (a very rare occurrence) but this was a great reminder to notice other miracles that surround us.  In our daily work, it is easy to get bogged down but we need to take the time to look around and marvel at what is happening.  This is something I will be fully committed to moving forward – always noticing the miracles.

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