Young children learn by doing, which makes teaching about Israel a particular challenge for educators at religious schools and synagogue-run preschools. Children can learn about Rosh Hashana by holding a shofar in their hand, by feeling its ridges and hearing its wail.
But how does a child in Pittsburgh get their hands on Israel?
To address that question, Adat Shalom launched a new education project this past weekend. In a ribbon cutting ceremony on Sunday afternoon, the Conservative congregation in the Fox Chapel area dedicated the Karen Shapira Israel Room.
The room makes Israel education a hands-on learning experience for children by integrating lessons about history, geography, art, science and culture into its walls.
The Israel Room is the brainchild of preschool teacher Debi Weingarden and incoming Religious School Director Gail Schmitt, who trace their efforts back to the Agency for Jewish Learning Nitzanim program, a two-year program to help Jewish educators in Pittsburgh learn how to make connections between local children and families in Israel.
On a trip to Israel, the culmination of the program, the two teachers got a request.
“They asked about how we could bring Israel back, how could we bring it to life for the children in our schools,” Schmitt said.
So Weingarden and Schmitt considered ways to incorporate more Israel education into their classrooms. They thought about making a board game based on Israel and tossed around ideas for a special lesson plan, but finally decided that the best way to bring Israel to life for children was to recreate the country between the four walls of a classroom.
“It’s more of an immersion,” Weingarden said.
The ambitious idea, though, bore greater costs.
After searching unsuccessfully for grant money, Weingarden and Schmitt ultimately found help locally. The room honors the late Karen Shapira, because it was funded by her husband David Shapira and the couple’s daughter and son-in-law, Laura and Tom Karet.
“My wife loved Israel. She would love this,” David Shapira said. “Karen viewed Israel as the center of the Jewish world, and any exposure to Israel she would have just loved.”
The immersive experience of the Israel Room begins with its door, designed by local artist Alix Paul, featuring replicas of the ancient stone and sand-colored buildings familiar to the region.
Once inside the room, children immediately stop at a “customs” station to their left, where they get a passport and learn about the long flight from America to Israel while standing beneath two clocks — one set to Pittsburgh time, the other to Jerusalem time.
“They can’t tell time, but we can say, ‘It’s so far away that when it’s daytime here it’s nighttime there,’” Schmitt said.
Students move from station to station, learning about different aspects of Israeli life. They can watch videos about Israel on a flat screen television, or learn about the challenges of Israeli agriculture through science experiments showing how plants grow (or don’t) in salty water, or fit notes into the cracks of a mock Western Wall.
“It utilizes a wide array of teaching techniques. … There’s art. There’s science. There are stories. There’s all sorts of ways they immerse into the experience,” Weingarden said.
The goal of the room, though, isn’t just immersion. It’s interaction. Webcams allow students in Pittsburgh to actually see and talk to students in Israel. A relationship Weingarden and Schmitt forged with a teacher in Karmiel — Pittsburgh’s sister city in the Partnership 2000 program — allows Pittsburgh children to make Israeli pen pals.
The room right now is geared toward preschool children age 3 to 5, but Schmitt, who takes over as religious school director this fall after 13 years as preschool director, hopes to use the room to craft a curriculum for older students in the near future.
Weingarden and Schmitt want the room to eventually be a communitywide resource that caters to both children and adults, and to both Jews and interfaith groups, and a way to offer fieldtrips for the Jewish communities in Squirrel Hill and the South Hills.
The only thing keeping those ideas from becoming a reality is additional funding.
“We could do so many things if we could do what we’d like to,” Schmitt said.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at email@example.com.)