Beth Am’s Jewish Discovery Lab brings Israel to the classroom

Beth Am students lie on a map of Israel
Beth Am students interact with a map of Israel. (Molly Kaye)

The pandemic has made trips to Israel challenging, so Beth Am’s Jewish Discovery Lab is bringing Israel to its students.

“Jewish Discovery Lab itself is, in a non-pandemic world, an experiential and hands-on program,” said Rabbi Kelly Gludt, Beth Am director of congregational learning. “When we were developing a curriculum for this particular year, we were trying to figure out what it is our kids would need.”

Instruction on Israel is a normal part of the curriculum, but it is normally taught every three years. Teaching it this year was a bit “out of order for us,” Gludt said, and staff went back and forth about what direction to take the curriculum in.

“We feel like our kids’ … personal world is so small right now that we wanted to remind them that there is a big, beautiful, vibrant, fascinating Jewish world out there that is waiting for them, that they will get to really enjoy again,” Gludt said.

“We thought doing an Israel unit would be just a really good, exciting, fun way to do that,” Gludt continued.

The Israel program was added to the Jewish Discovery Lab’s three-year curriculum cycle in 2014, Gludt said. She noted that it is one of the programs where staff stay cognizant of the ages of the students, as it would not be appropriate to try and teach second graders about the complexities of a Middle Eastern country.

This year, the Israel program has been running since January and will go through May. It is open to students in second through fifth grades and takes place Sunday mornings.

Families who signed up are provided with boxes of supplies for their children to use during the unit. When, for example, they learn about the Dead Sea, students will have Dead Sea mud to rub on their skin, Gludt said.

Making a conscious effort to retool the program in a way that would take advantage of the new virtual environment, Gludt and her team instituted a number of changes to how the program has been taught in the past. She enlisted an Israeli tour guide who has led Beth Am excursions in Israel in past years, Uri Feinberg, to show students around Israel during three Sundays in May. Highlights of these virtual tours will include Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Negev.

One of this year’s shinshinim, Zohar Shinehorn, has also contributed to the program, Gludt said. She “brings in a lot of the cool fun factor of, ‘Oh, here’s a song that goes with that,’” Gludt said. “She does an amazing job of also making Israel a real place for our kids, because she can talk about her personal experiences. … It adds a wonderful layer to our learning.”

While the majority of the program is virtual, they did hold an in-person, outdoor Israel fun fair in April, Gludt said.

Asked if students gain a greater appreciation or understanding of Israel, Gludt said, “I hope we generate some excitement and interest, and I hope that at the end of lab … that they come out with a somewhat nuanced approach.”

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