The JRS Experience in Israel: More than a Trip, a Journey!

Posted on 04/28/2023 @ 06:00 AM

Tags: Jewish Schools & Educational Services

Mural in Jerusalem: Joy Schandler (left) and JRS trip participants Myriam Azubel and Marisa Halle (Beth Torah BRC), Yuliette Gonzalez (Temple Judea) and Liset Leyva (TBS Innovative School)

Hopefully, for most of us reading this newsletter (and blog), we perceive Israel in a different way than countries in the rest of the world.
A primary goal of Israel education is to help the learner develop their own relationship to Israel.
One part of the professional development for our Jewish Resource Specialists (JRSs) has been for them to hone their skills as Israel educators and embrace the concept of Israel as an integral part of the yearlong curriculum, not just as we celebrate Yom haAtzmaut.
While Israel education sessions are worthwhile, nothing is as transformative as learning in Israel, which is why journeying to Israel was the culmination of their years of study.
Before the JRS’s from Beth Torah Benny Rok Campus, Temple Beth Sholom and Temple Judea embarked on their Israel trip, they wrote aspirations for their time in Israel.
Would the trip live up to their hopes and dreams? Would this trip create new relationships with Israel? Would the planned itinerary evoke the learning and reflection we had intended?
And most importantly, would this trip feel different than trips to other countries? Would this trip transform into a journey?

Here is an account, from Joy Schandler, of what we learned and experienced:

We fell in love with YeruchamMiami’s partnership city, and the desert in which it is located.
Every person we met, from Eliana our partnership coordinator, Debbie from Atid Bamidbar, Dafna, the director of the Forest Kindergarten, to the young people making breakfast for us in our guest house, was genuine, open, friendly and had a different story to tell us about why they have made Yerucham their home.
From Eliana, we learned about Yerucham’s quality of life especially when raising a family with young children.
From Debbie, we learned about the magic and mystery of the desert and came to understand why the desert experience is integral to our Jewish origin narratives and who we are today as a people and country.
From Dafna, we saw the profound learning for children and adults that comes from being outside and utilizing the land as the classroom.
We were drawn to Yerucham because of its designation as our partnership community, but we were drawn in to caring about it, because of the relationships we made with real people, doing important work.
Thanks to Sarah, our effervescent guide at Neot Kedumim Park, Israel’s Biblical landscape preserve, we bonded with the land of Israel.
Most of our holidays have an agricultural and seasonal significance, and at Neot Kedumim we saw the land and the Tanakh (Bible) come alive as we witnessed date palm trees next to cedars of Lebanon. We saw ancient olive trees and olive presses and learned that their harvest time is in the winter (the Chanukah connection!).
We saw evidence of tiny unripe almonds growing from their trees, the first to start blooming around the time of Tu B’Shevat.
And we learned how to identify the dainty shape of the rakefet, Israel’s national flower!
In our two hours at Neot Kedumim, we nurtured our own relationships with Israel’s land by hiking amongst its trees and wildflowers.

Outside of the Old City in Jerusalem

We also drew closer to Jerusalem and Shabbat in a myriad of ways. We studied the Jewish, Christian and Muslim narratives that make Jerusalem a place of pilgrimage for so many people around the world.
We also visited Machaneh Yehudah where we viscerally felt the central nature of Shabbat in Jewish life and culture as we visited “the shuk” during the height of “rush hour”- the exhilarated urgency of Jerusalemites getting ready for Shabbat.
Then we ourselves, both physically and mentally, felt the profound stillness and quiet as Shabbat descended on Jerusalem, which deepened our own relationship with Shabbat.
Following Shabbat, we next experienced the vital pace and complexity of Tel Aviv, from its ancient roots in Yaffo to the first settlement of Neve Tzedek, the first community in Israel to dedicate itself to communicating solely in Hebrew.
In South Tel Aviv, we visited Eshkol Kochavim, a unique cluster of early childhood classes, each class being either religious, secular or special education. Their director has created opportunities for religious and secular families to gather together. And because the parents found these gatherings so important, they became an integral part of planning these gatherings going forward.

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The Old City in Jerusalem
Lake Yerucham
Rakefet flowers
Preschool Pesach in Tel Aviv
Forest preschool in Yerucham
The "junkyard" playground

Our visits to many different types of ECEs gave us a glimpse into the culture of ECE when it is a universal and free program for all children from 3 – 6 years old.
We observed how our Israeli ECE colleagues are introducing Pesach to their children.  We saw bulletin boards filled with signs of Spring.
We watched children in play areas with Pharaoh hats, robes, rods, and baby Moses in a basket, retelling the story in their own words, as a video of the story played in the background.
We found that despite being in another country, we could relate to it all: To the educators and their energy and passion for teaching; to the children who welcomed us with their love and openness; to the ECE directors who all spoke so eloquently and clearly about their schools’ missions.
Because it wasn’t just “another country,” it was also our country.
What were the outcomes?
The trip nurtured and helped further develop our own relationships with Israel. The trip to Israel transformed into a journey of discovery, meaning and connection for the JRSs. The trip broadened our understanding of the early childhood experience and what is possible to teach and learn.
And we reaped an added bonus- getting to know each other and deepening our relationships, one to another, while journeying in Israel.
The JRS Initiative was a 3-year pilot program, generously funded by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and developed and coordinated by CAJE. The JRS is an Early Childhood educator who focuses on deepening the Jewish engagement for parents and families and deepening the Jewish learning for teachers, children and families."

Four ECEs have completed the JRS pilot program: Alper JCCBeth Torah Benny Rok CampusTemple Beth Sholom and Temple Judea.
To learn more about the Jewish Resource Specialist Initiative and to participate in a potential Cohort Two experience, contact Joy Schandler, CAJE’s Director of Early Childhood & Congregational Education