Reform movement launches Jerusalem's first preschool for children of refugees and foreign workers

The Nitzanim preschool, which opened this fall with 20 students, is the first educational program in Jerusalem for children of foreign workers and asylum-seekers, says Udi Cohen, the director of the Reform Movement’s preschool program based at Hebrew Union College. The children of Nitzanim, ages three to six, come from Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Congo, the Philippines and Korea.

Welcoming the stranger
by Rachel Marder (Photo: Marc Israel Sellem)

Briana, an affectionate and smiley Filipino preschooler, is celebrating her birthday today in the Nitzanim preschool. The class’s birthday ritual is generally the same for every pupil: The children, seated in a circle on plastic yellow chairs with the honored pupil next to the teacher, happily sing birthday songs.


The birthday girl is beaming. The children sing mostly in Hebrew, but when it is time for the “Happy Birthday” song, English and Arabic can also be heard. A birthday sign lies in the center of the circle, adorned with a picture of Briana. The children stick colorful hearts, stars and flowers on the sign, to her glee.Today, the newly minted four-year-old has dressed up. She wears a ruffled red skirt with a little white belt, pink sparkly shoes and white polka-dotted tights. On her head, she wears a pink crown with a bow. She holds a wand in her hand, as each pupil fights to be called on by the teacher to approach Briana with a birthday wish: many gifts, butterflies, lots of Barbie dolls, delicious cake and happiness.

In the background, assistant teachers set up the birthday table and food – Mickey Mouse tablecloth, Dora the Explorer napkins, plates filled with pretzels and Bamba snacks – while the birthday cake, all ready for presentation, waits in the kitchen.

The Nitzanim preschool, which opened this fall with 20 students, is the first educational program in Jerusalem for children of foreign workers and asylum-seekers, says Udi Cohen, the director of the Reform Movement’s preschool program based at Hebrew Union College. The children of Nitzanim, ages three to six, come from Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Congo, the Philippines and Korea.

The municipality-sponsored program strives to strengthen the children’s Hebrew language skills and prepare them for mainstream Israeli education.

Devora Givati, the director of pre-elementary education in the Jerusalem Municipality, estimates that there are roughly 56 children of foreign workers or refugees who are three to five years old in the city. For the last several years the municipality had been searching for a place to start a preschool to prepare these children for the Israeli school system, rather than just having a few in a class here or there; simultaneously HUC was looking to start its program. It was a match, Givati says.

While some of these children will stay in Israel, others could be deported, and either way they deserve a strong start in life, says Cohen, whose program also includes three “regular” Israeli classes on the HUC campus. He says he does not involve himself in the parents’ legal status; instead, he focuses on the children’s emotional and educational needs.

According to figures released by the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority, there are 74,649 legal and 14,404 illegal workers in Israel as of December 2011.

“Kids are kids, they need to be looked after,” Cohen says. “For me it doesn’t matter where they come from. If they can accept what we offer, then we’ll take them.”

The issue of these children’s rights and legal status has come under fiery debate in the last several years. Under government criteria approved in August 2010, children of foreign workers can be deported if they have not lived in Israel for at least five years, do not speak Hebrew or do not attend an Israeli school. The directive included some 400 children, some of whom were born in Israel and have never been to the country to which they could be deported. Last March, Interior Minister Eli Yishai delayed the decision so as not to disrupt the children’s studies. There are an estimated 300,000 foreign workers in Israel.

The idea for the preschool started last year, when Cohen accepted 10 children of asylum-seekers and foreign workers. That decision was firmly rooted in the Reform Movement’s ideology, Cohen says, to see every person, Jew or non-Jew, as it says in Genesis, as “created in the image of God.” He soon realized many of these children needed a class of their own to better prepare their Hebrew and get them ready for school.

Cohen says he received an angry letter recently from someone demanding to know why his program was helping non-Jews, and accusing the preschool of encouraging immigration, of “creating the problem” – a legitimate point, he adds.

“I think the answer is that these are kids; they don’t need to suffer from the situation,” he says. “We don’t deal with the larger issues of immigration. That’s the government. I’m not the one encouraging it.”

Even if any of the children are deported, he says that if they receive a strong foundation in Israel, they can be good ambassadors for the Jewish state overseas.

“I think that our government has to deal in a very serious way with issues of refugee immigration, and that should be dealt with on the national level,” says Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the director of the Reform Movement in Israel. “But it’s clear to me that when the refugees are here with the permission of the Israeli government… we are obligated not only as a democratic country but also as a Jewish state to welcome those refugees.”

As these families with legal or expired visas sit in limbo, the Reform Movement, like the Bialik Rogozin School in Tel Aviv, has decided to give the children a safe and supportive learning environment. Many of the children live in poor conditions; some have undergone traumatic experiences as refugees, and abuse or neglect in non-state-sponsored, “pirate” preschool programs, says Cohen, adding that he does not know much about each pupil’s history.

“A lot of them come with some [emotional] issues that need to be worked on,” he says. “The most important thing is that they’ve gone through a lot and they’re still going through a lot.”

They live in uncertainty, he explains; they don’t know if and when they will be denied visas and have to pick up and move, and some have witnessed police raids or violence. In the illegal preschools, Cohen adds, babies are left in their cribs for hours at a time and therefore don’t develop their muscles or motor skills. Nitzanim works on these developmental issues.

Idit Zimran, the preschool’s head teacher, emanates energy and affection for her pupils. The children crawl into her lap and give her hugs during playtime, but attentively listen to her instructions during activities. When Briana, for her birthday, brings a toy for show-and-tell, Zimran uses it as an opportunity to teach a handful of Hebrew words. Briana stands in the center of the circle with her mini-kitchen and hands out a kitchen utensil to each child – a fork, a spatula, a plate. As each child receives a toy, Zimran teaches the words for these items, and everyone repeats after her.

While language is a major obstacle, particularly with children ages three to six being at such different levels of Hebrew, Zimran and Cohen say they have seen a lot of growth since the school year began just a few months ago. If a pupil’s Hebrew seems of sufficient standard to move to one of HUC’s other preschool classes, Cohen says, the pupil would be transferred.

Zimran says she works to involve the parents in the class as much as possible, and even invited the mothers in for a parenting session on how to play games with their children, but the parents’ work schedules make it challenging. Most of the parents, Cohen says, work as caregivers or in custodial work, and Zimran says some don’t finish their work day until 8 p.m. When school ends at 4 p.m., some children go to a day-care center or home with another family for several hours.

“They don’t see their children a lot,” says Zimran. “The most important thing for me is to give [the children] a place where they know they are loved, feel safe, happy, they feel that they have friends and they are not alone in the world.”

The Israeli families of HUC’s other preschool classes have eagerly welcomed the children of Nitzanim, Cohen says. Some have reached out to them for play dates, and the teachers coordinate activities for the classes to do together to help build friendships. Kariv says welcoming these pupils makes for a practical application of the Jewish values they teach the pupils regarding tikkun olam (repairing the world) and welcoming the stranger.

Every Sunday morning, the preschool classes gather for a Havdala service to mark the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the new week. The children actively participate in the ritual, taking part in holding the spices, candle and kiddush cup. At the end of the ceremony, some children raise their hands to express blessings for the week ahead.

As a Reform institution, the preschool teaches Jewish content and leads religious services, but Cohen says it is careful in the Nitzanim class not to push Jewish ideology or practice on the non-Jewish pupils. The class celebrates Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh (the new month) and other holidays because these are central to Israel’s calendar, but Nitzanim doesn’t engage in regular prayer time.

“This is an educational experiment not only on the local level, but also on the national level, and we’re trying to find the right balance between integrating the children in the life cycle of the preschool but also in the life cycle of Israeli society, and not [imposing] on them a religion or a tradition that does not belong to them or is not part of their family life,” says Kariv.

Cohen and Kariv agree that Nitzanim must respect its pupils’ cultural background, and the school has even invited the parents to share their traditions in the classroom.

“It’s very important that a child not dismiss his background and his heritage [in deference] to another religion,” says Cohen.

While Nitzanim doesn’t celebrate Christmas, Cohen says he wished a pupil Merry Christmas if he knew he was celebrating the holiday.

Though Hebrew is the focus, the class is also abuzz with other languages. While the class sings “Happy Birthday” (in Hebrew) to Briana, Ariela Haim, 22, a volunteer from the World Union of Jewish Students, points excitedly to a girl from Eritrea who is singing the song in Arabic.

Besides Haim, an assistant teacher, a National Service volunteer and an HUC rabbinical student assist Zimran in the classroom. Money is tight, but Cohen says the families still pay the municipality NIS 770 a month and the preschool NIS 300 per month, as any other family would.

While an Israeli family can apply to the municipality for a financial discount, though, families that lack citizenship have to look elsewhere for aid. Cohen helps them locate financial assistance but says the municipality is working on a program to provide them with aid. The municipality pays for the long school day, and for the salaries of Zimran and her aides.

“We don’t stop anyone from having a good education because of lack of funds,” he says.


(from the Jerusalem Post)

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