By Linna Ettinger
Vision is certainly required to raise children to be upright citizens of today’s society, but in a bilingual (Hebrew and Arabic) Kindergarten in the town of Jaffa in Israel, the director, Ora Balha, demonstrates vision and also extraordinary courage every day. Ora and her husband founded Bustan Yafa (Bustan means “Garden” in Arabic) in 2010 to provide a school that fosters understanding between Muslim and Jewish Israelis. Each classroom has one teacher who speaks Hebrew and another teacher who speaks Arabic. In the backyard there are goats and chickens for the children to care for together and learn about compassion, responsibility and joy; there are olive, fig and lemon trees – so children can directly experience the wonder of nature in an unexpected garden in the city of Jaffa; and in the corner of the play yard, a carpentry area where kids work with a professional carpenter once a week to learn how to use tools safely, fix furniture together and express their creativity with new building projects. Bustan Yafa is based upon the Waldorf philosophy of education whose goal is to educate the whole child in a holistic manner. Ora passionately explained her vision for the present and future, saying that we have to think carefully about what kind of society we want on a world level and on a person-to-person level.
I had the opportunity to visit Bustan Yafa, one of the Kindergartens of the Orchard of Abraham’s Children organization, in February of 2019, when my colleague Rachel Raz and I led a seminar for educators, as part of our work with the Boston-Haifa Early Childhood Educators’ Connection, a program funded by Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP). Kayla Ship, our tour guide from Keshet, arranged for our visit with Ora. We brought early childhood educators and directors from the United States to learn and be inspired by different educational approaches in Haifa and other parts of Israel, and to engage in conversation with Israeli educators and professionals. We designed the Israel Seminar itinerary in a way that would allow educators and professionals to experience Israel’s rich variety of educational approaches. We also designed the Israel Seminar in order to inspire seminar participants to reflect upon their own institutions and the educational path they are leading. The preschools and other educational institutions we visited demonstrated how the Israeli educators and educational system meet children where they are. Each school and center had a specific strategy and approach, clearly demonstrating that there are multiple approaches to education, not just one way or strategy that works for all. One school specializing in science was strategically placed in a low socio-economic neighborhood, giving local children the foundational mindset of scientific inquiry and knowledge that they need to flourish in a quickly changing world where science and technology are so dominant. Another school specializing in nature was located in the city. Tennis centers placed around the country also offer programs to help at-risk youth, and provide a natural venue for a coexistence program integrating Arab and Jewish kids starting from an early age. To address the high incidence of traffic accidents rampant in Israel, a Traffic Safety Center was created to teach students about traffic safety from an early age. Parent centers are tailored to the particular needs of parents in a particular neighborhood – whether it be a low socio-economic neighborhood, a culturally diverse neighborhood, or an affluent neighborhood. All parents need support, guidance and mentoring, regardless of their background.
All of the centers and schools we visited have one common thread: they all are building a path towards a vision of a better society that will make it possible for citizens to thrive and flourish. That society includes citizens who are life-long learners who live a healthy lifestyle; who have healthy relationships with their family members; and who have healthy relationships with each other.
As Americans, we have a lot to learn from the national and local Israeli educational systems about how to prioritize the envisioning of a more inspiring society for our children, and how to take concrete steps towards achieving that goal. We can be inspired and guided by Israel’s multiplicity of approaches – there are many pathways to pave the way for children to thrive. We have our own set of character dampening challenges in our society – ranging from combative civil and political discourse, increased anxiety and suicide, and gun violence. While there are so many positive features of American society, we have considerable room for improvement. As a society, we need to be courageous and re-envision in which society our children will thrive and flourish.
Educators, professionals, clergy and lay-leaders will have a chance to re-envision a society together at the Annual Hebrew College Jewish Education Conference whose theme is Blossoming/Pricha. Rachel Raz, Director of the Early Childhood Institute, is Chair of the conference. The conference will take place on November 11 and 12, 2019. Registration is now open.
Linna Ettinger ([email protected]) is the Assistant Director of the Early Childhood Institute at Hebrew College and Conference Coordinator. More information about Hebrew College’s Early Childhood Institute can be found at www.hebrewcollege.edu/early-childhood-institute.