Monday, June 21, 2021

Outdoor Magic

Early childhood educators have long known the benefits of outdoor play. To name but a few, outdoor play improves physical and mental health, provides meaningful and magical opportunities to explore and create with others, and presents chances for appropriate and necessary risk-taking. This year, which will always be known as the COVID year, with its many restrictions and surprising bright spots, we've seen for ourselves day in and day out just how much our children have benefitted from spending so much time outside. We've seen the theory play out in practice. If anyone had any lingering doubts that outdoor play was different from indoor play and just as crucial for children's healthy development, this year put those doubts to rest.

Because we were told to be outside as often as possible, we went outside as often as possible. We ate snack and lunch outside. We did art projects outside. We played with legos and magnatiles and blocks outside. We went through tubs of sidewalk chalk and gallons of bubbles.
 We planted and watered and weeded. One class planted bulbs during Sukkot and watched the daffodils bloom during Pesach. Another planted and enjoyed lettuce and cilantro. 
We played with sticks and dirt and rocks and built bridges and forts and habitats for cicadas. We discovered so many spaces around the synagogue building that we had to give them special names. We needed a shared language so we could talk to each other about where we were going. In addition to the sukkah courtyard and amphitheater, classes played in the secret garden, by the climbing tree, in the field, and in the forest.
We also created new spaces. We hope you'll enjoy the Preschool Havdalah Herb Garden near the back parking lot and that you stumble upon the painted tree stumps in the secret garden behind the front parking lot. We worked with parent volunteers to enhance these spaces to make them even more beautiful and intentional. We have another project in mind, and we invite you to help us build it. We're planning on creating a Seven Species Garden in the grassy area to the left of the glass parking lot doors. We hope to build a new raised garden bed in the shape of a Star of David. We want to plant a fig tree and see if we can grow pomegranates. We imagine steppingstones and benches for wandering and resting. Like all the other spaces described so far, this will be another space that everyone in our community will be able to enjoy.

We'll be looking for gardeners and carpenters and anyone with a passion for outdoor learning. Stay tuned for more details and thank you in advance. Have a wonderful summer and see you in September!

Friday, May 14, 2021

Shavuot -- Do we really need all these rules?

We've quite literally been counting down the days until our next holiday, Shavuot, which begins in a few days. Starting on the second night of Passover, we count every day until we reach 50. Since we celebrate receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot, it makes sense that the holiday is linked to Passover. After leaving Egypt, the Israelites spent seven weeks in the desert before entering into the covenant with God.

Most people know The Ten Commandments, and some assume that they are the foundation of the Jewish moral code. But the Torah actually contains 613 commandments if you count every time God says "Do this" and "Don't do that" to the Jewish people. Some of those 613 are now impossible for us to observe (bringing sacrifices to the Temple) and some probably seem downright ridiculous to many of us now (not wearing clothing made with both linen and wool). But there are many others in those 613 that are, in my opinion, just as important as The Top Ten:
  • We are commanded to pay workers the day they complete their work so as not to take advantage of them: "On his day you should give his wages, the sun should not set on it, because he is a poor man and his life depends on it…"
  • "Do not put a stumbling block before the blind," which can be interpreted to mean that we shouldn't put any kind of barrier in front of anyone on their way to success or happiness
  • "Love your neighbor as yourself."
Children can most definitely relate to Shavuot and its celebration of the Torah, which in so many ways is a how-to book of rights and wrongs. Children thrive when they know what the rules are, when clear boundaries and expectations have been outlined and are enforced. Children feel more secure knowing that there are limits to their behavior, as well as the behavior of others. They feel safer and become more confident as a result. 

A great story to share with your children is No Rules for Michael by Sylvia A. Rouss. Michael thinks school would be more fun without rules, so his teacher (wisely) suggests a day without rules. Quickly Michael becomes frustrated and sad. At the end of the book he says, "No one will listen to me. No one will give me a turn. No one will share. I guess rules are important. Rules show people how to care about each other."

Friday, February 5, 2021

Shabbat Bags and the Family Prayer

"More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews." 

-- Ahad Ha'am

Over the past few weeks, our friends have been busy making kiddush cups, candle sticks, challah covers, and/or tzedekah boxes to fill their very own Shabbat Bags. In the past, each class has shared a Shabbat Bag, with a different friend taking the bag home each week. Things are a little different this year. 

Today, every child will go home with the ritual items and a copy of the blessings needed to make Shabbat, and every week we'll send a friend home with a bottle of grape juice, candles, and baby challahs from our neighbors at Great Harvest. We hope you'll take a picture of your family celebrating (or getting ready to celebrate) Shabbat and send them to your child's teacher to share on the class blog. Whatever your family's faith tradition or level of observance, we hope you find this family dinner tradition as meaningful as we do. 

In thinking about what we hope each family will take away from this experience, I could only think of the 'family prayer' we say at my house every Friday night:

We thank You, God, for enabling us to welcome this Shabbat day together.

We are grateful for the happiness of our home and for our caring and loving family.

We are thankful for the blessings of the past week: for life and health, for laughter and friendship; for the opportunity to work, to learn, and to grow.

Where these have been lacking, may the coming week be better.

We pray that the peacefulness of Shabbat will refresh and inspire us so that the week ahead will be one of blessing and accomplishment for each of us(Emphasis added at my house!)

(from Siddur Sim Shalom)

Shabbat Shalom!

a different version originally posted February 17, 2017

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Three Reasons Why This is One of the Best Years Ever

The 2020-2021 school year, which we approached with a lot of uncertainty and a degree of trepidation, has so far proven to be one of the best years ever. Parents and teachers alike have said numerous times that there's something special about this year. While we truly missed helping the children prepare food to share with their families at our annual Thanksgiving feast, and we've missed gathering as a whole school every week for Shabbat, there have been benefits to this school year that few of us were expecting.
We've slowed down.
Ask any teacher what they wish for most and I guarantee the majority will answer "time." Teachers never have enough time. 

This year, because we're cohorting, the same two teachers stay with the same small group of children all day long. In a more typical year, a child who is in school from 7:30 am to 5:30 pm might engage with ten different teachers and 20 different children in three different classroom spaces. Thanks to cohorting, the classes this year are more cohesive, and there are hours more opportunities every single day for the teachers and children to learn together. There are far fewer transitions during the day which creates a calmer atmosphere and allows everyone the time to really focus on the tasks at hand. Classes eat when they're hungry and nap when they're tired. Routines are more natural. Everyone feels at home.

We play outside all the time.
All. The. Time.

You might find us planting a garden. Or swinging from the "climbing tree." Or exploring the "fairy garden" behind the parking lot or the "field" by the rabbi's house or the "woods" across the street. Classes take walks around the block, even when it's pouring rain, and jump in every puddle they find. They identify letters and numbers on license plates. They wave at firefighters driving down the street. They look for butterflies and bees in our neighbor's natural habitat garden. The go swimming in giant piles of leaves and find bugs in the dirt and poke at funny looking fungi that grow out of tree stumps. All the while their bodies and minds are being challenged by these experiences. They're growing and learning in ways they simply can't inside a building.

These spaces and these opportunities were always there, but it wasn't until we were compelled by necessity to spend more time outside that we realized what we'd been missing out on all along.

Our community has grown stronger.
There is a palpable element of trust and respect between the families and the school this year. The parents are grateful that we've reopened, and the teachers are grateful to be back at work. The children are grateful to be with their friends. We've all taken our commitment to each other's health and safety very seriously. Our communication is open, honest, and frequent. We know how lucky we are because not all schools have re-opened and not all school re-openings have been so successful. We know it is not a cliche to say that we're all in this b'yachad, together. 

Friday, December 4, 2020

The Potential for Light

Everyone knows the story of Chanukah:

The Macabees, a family of Jewish freedom fighters, won a war against Israel's occupiers, the Syrian-Greeks. The Jews reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been desecrated. They set out to make it holy again, and so they looked for oil to light the menorah. But they found only enough oil to last one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, which is why, to celebrate Chanukah (which means dedication), we light candles and eat food fried in oil for eight nights.

So, we’re commanded to light the candles, but how? Two of the greatest sages of all time, Hillel and Shammai, debated the proper way to light the Chanukah menorah, or chanukiah.

Shammai believed you should begin with the “days remaining,” meaning you start with eight candles. Each night you light one fewer candle. In this way, the light decreases.

Hillel believed you should begin with the “days completed,” meaning you start with one candle and add one each night, thereby increasing the light each day.

Hillel, whose opinion we follow, realized you should celebrate the potential of the commandment and the potential for light. Each night you light candles, you realize not only how many days you’ve celebrated, but how many days you still have to celebrate. The light never diminishes, it only increases, becoming more beautiful each night. As the light grows, so does your joy in the miracle. 

It's important sometimes to take a moment to reflect not just on what's to come, but on what's been achieved. This is especially true when those big life transitions are right around the corner. So, each night before we light the candles this year, we should pause, think about and take joy in our past accomplishments, and then imagine what the future may bring.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Shabbat Blessings -- Our Children

A few weeks ago we started reading the first book of the Torah, Breishit (Genesis). It's in these stories that we meet the patriarchs and matriarchs and learn how the Ancient Israelites ended up in Egypt generations later.

A lot of "blessing" goes on in these stories. Gob blesses Abraham, Isaac blesses Jacob (a blessing Jacob steals from his brother Esau), and Jacob blesses the sons of his son Joseph, Ephraim and Menashe. 

The "priestly blessing," known to many, refers to this blessing of Jacob's. It has become traditional for Jewish mothers and fathers to give their sons and daughters this blessing on Friday evenings, often right after lighting Shabbat candles.

This can be a very meaningful moment for parents and their children. Parents often place their hands on their children's heads while reciting the blessings. In my experience, children, once they become teenagers, pretend to not like this tradition anymore. I think they secretly love it, because they know it's a demonstration of their parents' love for them.

In English, the blessings are:
For boys: May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.

For girls: May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.

For both: May God bless you and keep you. May God's light shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God's face be turned toward you and give you peace.

To learn more, and for the blessings in Hebrew, check out the link below.
Bim Bam (video)

Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Science of Shabbat Dinner

Every now and then I’ll come across a study that seems to confirm the importance or validity of a Jewish tradition. This happened a few years ago when I read about the research promoting the importance of the family dinner and immediately connected it with the Friday night Shabbat meal. In addition to the traditional and spiritual benefits of celebrating Shabbat as a family, there are countless other benefits to simply sitting down together a few times a week to enjoy a meal together.

From The Family Dinner Project ( Over the past 15 years researchers have confirmed what parents have known for a long time: sharing a family meal is good for the spirit, the brain and the health of all family members. Recent studies link regular family dinners with many behaviors that parents pray for: lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression, as well as higher grade-point averages and self-esteem. Studies also indicate that dinner conversation is a more potent vocabulary-booster than reading, and the stories told around the kitchen table help our children build resilience. The icing on the cake is that regular family meals also lower the rates of obesity and eating disorders in children and adolescents. Shabbat affords families the perfect opportunity to reap these benefits.

While there are certain customs associated with the Shabbat meal, in my opinion there’s really no wrong way to celebrate Shabbat. Families shouldn’t feel so overwhelmed by the “do’s” and “don’ts” of Shabbat that they hesitate to give it a try. Start with what is familiar, and build from there. You’re worried that you don’t have time to make a traditional meal? Or no one will like it? If your kids love pizza, and if ordering a pizza gives you the time to sit down as a family, then order the pizza. And have Oreos for dessert. Maybe some of the meal’s rituals don’t resonate with your family for whatever reason. Don’t force it. Find or create traditions that do have meaning for your family. Maybe instead of reciting the traditional priestly blessing for the children you tell them something about themselves that makes you proud. Whatever your family make-up or level of observance, it’s about finding the time to be together as a family that’s most important.

And if you'd like to join your friends at Agudas Achim for Shabbat, visit our website. We've tried to come up with a variety of programming to meet the needs of all families. Maybe we'll see you soon!

Outdoor Magic

Early childhood educators have long known the   benefits of outdoor play . To name but a few, outdoor play improves physical and mental heal...