Friday, December 15, 2017

Shabbat Around the Table -- Miketz

Joseph interprets Pharaoh's dream in Miketz, this week's parsha. Pharaoh dreams of seven fat cows swallowing seven skinny cows and seven plump ears of grain swallowing seven lean ears of grain. Joseph sees that seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine in the land of Egypt. He advises Pharaoh to store grain in anticipation of the famine and Pharaoh appoints him governor of Egypt.

When my son was little, and still occasionally, I'll say to him when he wakes up, "Good morning! Did you have any dreams last night?" A long time ago, when I was babysitting, I'd heard a mom ask her son that same question and I thought it was the loveliest thing to ask someone when they first wake up. Dreams are sometimes scary but more often they're weird and wacky. I think it's genuinely fun to try to figure out the meaning of your dreams the following morning, and talking about dreams is a great way to get the conversation going on a sleepy morning. Try asking your child, "Did you have any dreams last night," share your own, and enjoy the morning.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Thanksgiving in the Preschool

Since August, I’ve been sharing some of the changes we’ve made or will be making in the preschool this year. Change is necessary for growth, but oftentimes change is hard. There’s a poster hanging in my office that reminds us of this: “Change is Hard at First, Messy in the Middle, and Gorgeous at the End.” But not all things necessarily require big changes, and the preschool’s annual Community Thanksgiving Feast is one of them.

Last year, I was blown away by this event. At first, I didn’t believe we could pull it off, but by the end, I was already looking forward to the next one.

First, we invite all our families, including siblings, grandparents, and caregivers, so it really is a community event. Approximately 200 people attend, and we have to feed them all.

The children do all the cooking, and each class makes a specific dish to share: mashed sweet potatoes, green beans, succotash, corn bread, apple sauce, cranberry sauce, and dessert. Families donate the ingredients, and it takes us a whole day to do all the prep work and baking.

Personally, I found making the mashed sweet potatoes to be the most fun. After roasting the potatoes whole, the skin peels right off. As for the next step, just hand potato mashers to a group of three or four-year-olds and stand back. They’ll figure out what to do without you having to explain much. Add some butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon, and you have a genuinely delicious dish that received rave reviews from those in attendance last year.

In order to seat 200 people, we have to take over the social hall. It’s filled with every long table the synagogue has, and each of those tables must be decorated. Each class makes table decorations (which each child will take home after the feast to hopefully grace their own Thanksgiving table), ranging from cornucopias to turkeys to pieces that incorporate natural elements such as acorns or autumn leaves. Volunteers come in the night before to set up the room and set the tables. It’d be impossible to get the job done without our amazing parents.

By the time you read this, I will have enjoyed my second Community Thanksgiving Feast as director of the preschool. As comfortable as I am with change, when thinking about this incredible event, I can’t help but remember something my dad often says: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Friday, December 1, 2017

Shabbat Around the Table -- Vayishlach and Shalom Aleichem

Jacob wrestles with one of God's messengers -- an angel -- during the night and gets a new name in the morning in this week's parshaVayishlach. His new name, Israel, means "you have struggled with God."

Angels are mentioned throughout the Torah. Abraham and Sarah welcome three angels to their tent earlier in Breishit (Book of Genesis), in one of my favorite stories. They drop everything they are doing to make sure their guests are welcome.

There is also a custom of welcoming angels to your dinner table on Friday nights. The angels are said to have accompanied you home in order to celebrate Shabbat with you. In many households, a song welcoming the angels in the first song sung around the Shabbat table.

Shalom Aleichem
Greetings to you, Angels!
May peace enter with you,
Bless me for peace,
Go on your way in peace
God is over us all.

Click here to learn the words and the tune. May your Shabbat be filled with peace!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Shabbat Around the Table -- A Thanksgiving Challenge

Giving thanks almost feels like a cliche this time of year. But giving thanks, or expressing gratitude, even when one doesn't feel especially thankful, has been shown to have positive effects. When we take the time to 'recognize the good' (in Hebrew, hakarat hatov), especially on a regular basis, we find ourselves feeling calmer, less anxious, less resentful, happier, more generous, and more joyful.

Some people have a tradition of expressing gratitude at Thanksgiving or around the Shabbat table every Friday night. Some people give thanks as part of their evening prayers. But we don't have to wait for these designated times to express gratitude. Opportunities present themselves multiple times over the course of the day; we just have to make the time to recognize and acknowledge them.

In Pennsylvania, I noticed a creek that reminded me of where I grew up. That made me nostalgic . . . and thankful for the memories. (See the video below to understand why.) A friend sent me a link of a cashier helping an elderly gentleman count out his quarters in a Wal-Mart checkout line. Even though I don't know her, I'm grateful that that clerk was there in that moment for that man, instead of someone else who might have had less patience.

So here's the challenge. 'Recognize the good' at least once every day between now and Thanksgiving and express your gratitude in front of your children. Use specific language so they understand why a moment is a moment deserving of gratitude. Help them see the beauty and kindness that exists in our world. It really is everywhere.

I am grateful to one of the directors at my retreat for sharing this idea with the group. Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 3, 2017

Shabbat and the Family 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.

One way that we promote the value of Shabbat and the family dinner in the preschool is by sending home “Shabbat Bags.” Every week a different family gets the chance to take home the class’s Shabbat Bag. Each bag contains two small challahs, a small bottle of grape juice, a Kiddush cup, candle sticks, and candles. There is a small blessings booklet, a Shabbat storybook, and a binder for each family to write a little about their Shabbat experience. Each week that the bag goes home, another family adds their story for the next family to enjoy the following week.

I was so impressed with this school tradition last year that I wondered why we waited until mid-year to start it. This year we’ll start after the high holidays and before Thanksgiving, providing each family at least two or three opportunities to take home the Shabbat Bag. Each class is also going to work on creating an element to go into the bag (like a challah cover or candlesticks) so that the children in the class take ownership of their bag and take extra pride in it when they take it home to share with their families.

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.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Environment as the Third Teacher

The week before school started, our teachers attended a workshop entitled “The Environment as the Third Teacher.” (In case you’re wondering, the other two teachers are first and foremost the child’s parent and later on their classroom teacher.) By seriously considering the space in which children learn, and the materials that are available to them, classroom teachers demonstrate respect for children. The right kind of classroom environment creates a sense of safety and warmth; it invigorates children and leads to excitement and joy, discovery and collaboration. The wrong kind of environment stifles and distracts from real learning. When classroom environments are constructed thoughtfully, teachers also begin to view their role differently. They come to regard themselves less as conveyors of information and more as facilitators of learning.

Preschool classrooms can and should be beautiful. They should be warm and welcoming and aesthetically pleasing. They should look more like a home and less like an elementary school. Rooms that are cluttered are distracting; rooms that are splashed with nothing but primary colors are overwhelming. Natural light (which we thankfully have in abundance!), houseplants, neutral colors, well-organized spaces, and a variety of materials discourage chaos and invite reflection and creativity.

Even the placement of classroom supplies is worth careful consideration. When a teacher places art materials on a high shelf, they are sending a message: the children in this classroom aren’t trusted to use glue and scissors on their own. They must first ask for permission to create. The teacher is completely in control. When those same materials are kept at the child’s level, the children know they are trusted. They understand that they can draw and paint and cut and glue when they want to. They learn how to use the materials safely, and they learn how to be responsible by putting the supplies away when they are finished. They are given the opportunity to demonstrate that they are capable and competent.

When teachers take advantage of their environment, real learning happens. Rather than deciding months in advance that a unit on hibernation is called for when it’s wintertime, taking advantage of a squirrel sighting on the playground can lead to an investigation. The children spot the squirrel burying an acorn and ask questions. Rather than give them information, the teacher wonders how to find the answers to the questions. That leads to a trip to the class library. Soon the children are spotting squirrels everywhere, counting them, wondering if it’s the same squirrel or many squirrels. They’ve become acute observers. The teacher provides them with clipboards and paper and writing materials to draw what they see. Now they’ve become scientists. One thing leads to another – every decision the teacher makes to further the learning creates deeper meaning and understanding for the children. And the children are learning much more than just facts; they’re learning how to learn. This can only happen when the teacher understands and respects the possibilities that the environment provides.

This year in the preschool we’re focusing on our environment, on making it more beautiful and accessible, and learning how to take better advantage of it. One small step in that direction was to paint all the classroom doors white over the summer. The hallway looks so much brighter and fresher; thank you again to all the parents, grandparents, alumni, friends, and spouses who volunteered. We’ve also begun purging some of the clutter that’s accumulated over the years to make room for more creative and open-ended toys and materials. Teachers are also rethinking their classroom spaces and finding ways to use them differently. Finally, teachers are always encouraged to take advantage of learning opportunities that present themselves, even if that means ditching a planned activity. Children will learn the skills they need to learn regardless of the content, and if they are invested in the content, they’ll learn and retain the skills better. I’m looking forward to an exciting year full of new possibilities!

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...