|Parents toast the launching of Bereisheet at a July meeting. Courtesy Bereisheet|
A group of Israeli ex-pats in the Tenafly area recently got to wondering – how to keep their children tied to their Israeli roots while living several thousand miles away in Bergen County?
An answer to their question came quickly, and within a few months an after-school program for Hebrew-speaking youngsters was born.
The program, for pupils in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, will begin next month in rented space at the Maugham School in Tenafly with an initial enrollment of some 65 students. The program will meet once a week for 35 weeks of two-hour sessions.
The ex-pats named the program “Bereisheet,” the first word of the first book of the Bible, which means “in the beginning,” said Avi Cohen, one of the founders. It is described as an “immersive language environment,” using as tools music, storytelling, and art.
Ronny Piotraut and Ayala Hodak of Tenafly, and Cohen of Englewood, three of the seven board members, outlined the program’s structure and goals in an interview with The Jewish Standard.
Some 2,050 Israeli families live in the area, Cohen said, and “as immigrants, there is no program focused on Israelis.” Many Israelis here are not affiliated with synagogues or are secular, so there is no central anchor in their loose-knit community, he said, and it is important “that the word gets out” about Bereisheet.
The group is an incorporated not-for-profit. While a key objective is studying Hebrew, the program will teach about Israel, and do so in a fun way, the board members said. Their slogan is “An Israeli Childhood Experience.”
Since the youngsters will have spent a full day of learning when they come to Bereisheet, it is important that they can enjoy the after-school program, said Piotraut, the mother of two youngsters who will participate in Bereisheet.
The goal is to “bring results in a fun way, so the [children] want to come,” said Hodak, who has one child entering the program.
“We want to keep our heritage, our roots, our values,” said Hodak. “We want our kids to enjoy the experience and transfer it to their kids. It’s going to be a part of who they are.”
Piotraut sees a danger in loosening ties. “They’re starting to lose the language, and language is so important to us,” she said.
The program was launched by e-mail, sent to 400 families; 120 showed up at an inaugural meeting in July.
“We were amazed,” said Hodak. “It was heartwarming, we touched a nerve,” said Cohen. They had initially projected 30 children in three or four classes. Some 65 youngsters are registered for the inaugural session in six or seven classes.
The youngsters are mostly children of Israeli parents, or “mixed” couples, in which one is Israeli, but the program is open to all, Piotraut said.
Cohen stressed the professional nature of the project, noting that there is a principal, Neta Ramot, and teachers who are native Hebrew speakers. He said the teachers are certified in Israel and here.
“We want to bring the Israeli way of celebrating holidays,” said Cohen, speaking of a special reverence for Yom Ha-Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day), Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day), and Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day).
He also cited the festive atmosphere around such holidays as Tu B’Shevat. He cited the day after Shavuot, “splash day,” in which Israelis playfully toss water balloons.
Holidays and Shabbat dinner are cherished, said Hodak, and it is important that youngsters see beyond the surface and understand the true meaning of holidays.
Noting that many Israelis are not affiliated with synagogues, Cohen said that it is important for them to have a Jewish focus in the community. He added that the program’s reach will be to the entire family. “We are immigrants; we face a lot of challenges,” said Cohen. “We want to help new immigrant families.”
“We have one big goal,” he said. “We want to keep our kids Jewish, to light the spark.”
Funding comes mainly from tuition, which is $1,400 for the year, and that covers some 70 percent of the cost, Cohen said. For the rest, Bereisheet welcomes donations.
Karen Adler of Bergenfield has two children, aged 7 and 5, enrolled in the program. For her, the school is about building a solid Jewish identity for her children. “I want my kids to really understand the meaning of the [Hebrew] words,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s not just sitting down with a textbook.”
After a full day of learning, an after-school program must be “fun,” using songs and games to enhance learning, she said.
It is also important, said the Israeli-born mother, that the teachers be native Hebrew speakers from Israel, so that the children learn the language properly.
For now, Bereisheet enrollment is limited to youngsters who have at least an understanding of Hebrew. In the future, the program’s organizers plan classes for those just learning Hebrew, Cohen said.
Also, Cohen said, they have received requests for programs for adults, and that too will be on the drawing board. Adler said her American-born husband would be a prime candidate for such a program.
Beyond the classroom, the founders hope the program will be a platform for outreach to the large Israeli ex-pat community, providing information and social connections.
For information go to www.bereisheet.com.