“Hamotzi lechem min haaretz…” the first words I heard in Hebrew sung at the Siegel JCC, Early Childhood Center in Wilmington, Delaware.
I knew when I was hired by the JCC that I was going to experience the Jewish Culture, but I was not prepared to experience it right away. I never thought twice about the differences in religions. All I knew was that I was a New Englander that was born and raised in the Catholic faith. I was baptized, received my first Holy Communion and Confirmation. I went to a Catholic School, was an altar boy for a good majority of those years, and I KNEW the mass like the back of my hand. But because Catholicism was so indoctrinated into my life, I was really thrown off at that first lunchtime experience at the ECC. I did not keep my Catholic upbringing a secret when applying and interviewing; quite the opposite actually. I made it a point to discuss my lack of knowledge with the Jewish culture. But, that’s the type of person I am…I NEVER want to know less than the children I am entrusted to care for and educate. One particular conversation I had with my director, I’ll never forget: “Nick, I’m Catholic as well, and I’ve been working here for over 15 years. I sometimes feel like I know more Judaics and Hebrew than the Jewish teachers!”
Fast forward a month into my employment, and Purim was upon us. The teacher that I was assisting at the time was going to be gone on vacation for a few days, and I was going to be the lead teacher in that room. I wanted to create activities that I knew connected the story of Purim to skills the children were working on, so research was needed. I went rather unconventional to gather information. Instead of doing a google search first, I turned to the PJ Library section of our school’s library. Through books like Is It Purim Yet, The Mystery Bear, A Purim Story, and The Better Than Best Purim, I was able to create amazing experiences for the children that not only connected images and elements of the holiday but connected skills and knowledge. We laced Hamantaschen, we matched groggers by sound, we dug through sand to find Queen Ester’s Jewels, dressed up in a variety of robes and costumes to include a three-pointed Haman hat, and, our favorite, taste testing a variety of Hamantaschen to see which flavor we liked the best (it’s no secret, chocolate was the clear cut winner).
As I began to delve deeper into the vast history of Judaism, I was able to see so much material that is relevant to the development of children other than just Holidays and their meanings. As I came across the Jewish Values, I saw an opportunity to help connect those concepts and meanings into experiences that, not only teach a lesson, but help to develop humanity in children.
Moving along in the year, I was asked to develop curriculum for our Summer Specials of Jewish Nature. Each week that summer, the children gained exposure to the concept of a value and connected it to an activity. For example, we demonstrated the concept of Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World) by planting seeds and caring for them. During our week of Jungle Animals, we discussed the idea of Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim (Caring for Creation or Protecting the Animals). The children had an opportunity to match animals into their natural habitats and talk about why that area was important to that animal. We created bird feeders as a way to help Protect Nature or Sh’mirat Ha-teva during our week of Nature. Did the children recall the Hebrew Value? Not entirely, but they were able to connect multiple facets of their learning, and the root of those lessons was grounded in Judaism.
I approached every holiday and opportunity I had that first year in the same way: researched children’s literature, google searched for authenticity, and then saw what skills the children were working on. Teacher after teacher kept asking, “How do you know so much when you’re not even Jewish?” It’s simple: everything I ever needed to know about Judaism I learned in Pre-K!