High Holidays: Toddler Edition


Coloring, crafting and shofar blowing?

With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur just around the corner, Jewish preschools are inviting the high holidays into their classrooms. From dipping apples in honey to learning where the horn for the shofar comes from, teachers in Baltimore are rolling the Jewish holidays into their curriculums.

Enter Ilene Brooks’ classroom at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s EB Hirsh Early Childhood Center. With Rosh Hashanah play box sets and baby shofars, her 4-year-olds learn about the holiday through playtime. Brooks’ students plant apple trees, taste honey samples and create birthday cards to introduce the Jewish customs and values at an early age.

“We focus on play as a main pathway to education,” says Brooks. “From this Rosh Hashanah table set that has a fake round challah and candlesticks to baking a birthday cake for the Jewish New Year, we incorporate the holiday’s general concepts into our classroom every day.”
As part of the BHC community, rabbis and cantors also make guest appearances in the classrooms. By triggering different senses, the entire staff allows students to see, hear, touch, feel and taste the holidays.

“All this week, rabbis and cantors will visit the classes with the shofar,” says preschool director Renee Stadd. “We want the students to feel the horn of the shofar and listen to the sounds it makes. By appealing to the senses, students will remember different aspects of the holiday better than from a lecture.”

While Baltimore Hebrew focuses on playtime, Melissa Lebowitz, director of the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community Preschool, says she is giving the power back to the students. Studying the Reggio Emilia self-guided approach to education, she applies the academic technique to the High Holidays.

“I traveled to Italy to learn how the Reggio Emilia approach works and brought it back to Beth Tfiloh,” says Lebowitz. “The approach is based off the students’ interests and how they want to study. For example, when we were reading a book about Rosh Hashanah this year, one of the students asked where honey comes from. From there, we planned the entire lesson around honey and beehives. Now, when students see honey, they associate it with the Jewish New Year.”

By creating a connection between Rosh Hashanah and birthdays, the emergent curriculum also uses material goods as part of the lesson.“Rosh Hashanah is a birthday,” says Lebowitz. “Here is how we would teach it: First, we ask, what is a birthday? Then, we would have the students play with hula hoops. Hula hoops are circular. Birthdays come around once a year. Rosh Hashanah is the world’s birthday. It is a continuous thread of study.”

Rachael Schwartz also uses a hands-on approach at the Joseph & Corinne Schwartz Preschool at Beth Israel Congregation. Using different techniques to teach the high holidays, she intertwines the upcoming Jewish events with her general curriculum. With students ranging from 2 to 5 years old, Schwartz builds High Holiday ideals from year to year.

“During Rosh Hashanah, we use apples to solve math problems,” says Schwartz. “We will cut the apple in half and look at the seeds. We count the seeds and use them for addition and subtraction. Through the combination of secular and Jewish concepts together, our students have a well-rounded education.”

In addition to educating the students about the High Holidays, the Owings Mills institution brings the entire community together to celebrate the holidays.

“We have an annual trip to Baugher’s Orchards in Carroll County,” says Schwartz. “Families come together to pick apples for Rosh Hashanah. On Sept. 21, preschool students and
parents will build holiday traditions together.”

While most preschools focus on Rosh Hashanah, early childhood centers also bring in basic concepts of Yom Kippur as well. From throwing challah in local lakes — a reference to the Rosh Hashanah afternoon custom of tashlich — to decorating flip flops to wear instead of leather shoes, students slowly understand that Yom Kippur is a day of atonement.

“We tell students that Yom Kippur is a day to say ‘I’m sorry’ for all the mistakes they made,” says Brooks. “Although we focus more on Rosh Hashanah, we want students to understand why their parents do not consume food and why the holiday is so important.”

From institution to institution, the general approach is one of experiences over lectures.

Says Schwartz:”The bottom line is: Students need to experience the holidays to learn as much as possible.”

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