JCC ECE Director Nikki Henry Visits Israel

JCC ECE Director Nikki Henry Visits Israel as part of Early Childhood Leadership Seminar

On the eve of Purim this past March, JCC Early Childhood Education Director Nikki Henry traveled to Israel, spending 11 days visiting sites like Yad Vashem, the Dead Sea, Ben Yehuda Street and the shuq in Jerusalem, the ancient cities of Jaffa and Caesarea, and more, all in the pursuit of deepening the connection between preschool learners and the land of Israel. The trip also included Shabbat, allowing the group to experience the day of rest in the Jewish homeland.

In addition to gaining insight into what makes Israel so special, from its gloriously colorful sights to its vivid smells and flavors, Henry and 23 professional colleagues from 20 JCCs across the U.S. also visited several kibbutzim and gan, or preschools, throughout the country. Cultural connections were made between educators from both North America and Israel as part of the JCC Association’s Early Childhood Education Leadership Seminar from March 9-20. The program was created to enhance one of the essential core elements of Sheva: JCCs of North America Early Learning Framework: “Israel as the Story of the Jewish People.”

The trip, Henry’s first time visiting Israel, was a hands-on opportunity to study with scholars in Israel in early childhood education and development, crisis management, children’s literature, spiritual development of children, and more. Each day was designed to be the foundation for continuing work in connecting our North American JCC early childhood centers to the state of Israel in meaningful and long-lasting ways.

But the trip proved to be more eye-opening for Henry than she could have possibly imagined. “It had to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” said Henry. “I had heard many stories about Israel, but I didn’t realize that, to really share it with others, I needed to be in the heart of it! When I was there, all the things I’ve learned at the Center, all the blessings, everything was an intrinsic part of life. It all fit together and felt like home. It validated my years at the JCC. The JCC has always been home to me, but going there really made me feel like, ‘Look how much I’ve learned over the last 30 years, and I’ve learned it because of all my years of experiences at the JCC.’”

Throughout the leadership seminar, participants visited matnas (community centers) and preschools, including the YMCA Peace preschool for Jewish, Christian and Arab children; an Orthodox Jewish early childhood program; and a Reform movement preschool. Seeing the similarities and differences between the Israeli preschools and the JCC’s Early Childhood Program was especially intriguing for Henry. “I loved the music. They were singing the same songs that we sing here. It was so fun to see how similar our preschools were, yet a little bit different,” she added.

Participants visited Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, where they learned about the “junkyard playground.” This outdoor play area was invented at this kibbutz in the 1940s. Designers studied with one of the primary researchers and developers of this playground philosophy, which, as an extension of the classroom, allows children to construct knowledge and invent with everyday, castoff objects.

Henry explained what she got out of learning about this very different approach to early childhood education: “They feel the kids are capable of handling this. They let them go outside, barefoot, and play with boxes, objects we would toss out, all kinds of materials that give them a chance to explore. The children really use their imagination to make the playground. That gives them a greater sense of independence. Even in the market in Israel, the parents would sometimes be back behind their kids, because in Israel, everybody’s watching out for everybody else’s children. It’s just a very different philosophy and it was fascinating to see. Leah Garber, Vice President of the JCCA Israel Office, explained to us that in Israel, families watch out for each other. If a child wanders off, people help them. That’s just what they do there.”

To help bring a little bit of Israel back to our JCC preschoolers, Henry brought “Sammy Spider” with her to Israel. Sammy is well-known to the children at the JCC thanks to the beloved PJ Library storybook, Sammy Spider Goes to Israel. So, Henry thought, “Why not bring our stuffed Sammy Spider to every site we visit and take photos, so the kids can see where Sammy went?”

“I took him everywhere. I took a photo with him by the water at Caesarea. I tried my hardest to take pictures and place him in areas that are kid-friendly. I made a slideshow of my trip to Israel with Sammy. So when we go to talk about Israel, we now have something tangible that we can share with the kids,” Henry said.