Bay Area Jewish Resource Specialists Reflect on a Meaningful Seminar in Israel

Recently, a group of Early Childhood educators attended a seminar in Israel as part of the Jewish Resource Specialist (JRS) program of the Federation’s Early Childhood Education Initiative. Generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, the program has established a mentor/teacher resource for staff and families and is currently implemented at 10 sites throughout the Federation’s service area. Originally launched at five sites in 2011, this program aims to add more meaningful Jewish content to the entire preschool community through an in-house specialist. The Israel seminar was one of many professional development opportunities for the Jewish Resource Specialist cohort.

Avril Landes, JRS at Gan Mah Tov Preschool in Oakland

It's been a week since I returned to the States after the immersive and deeply meaningful experience that was the JRS Israel Symposium. I can still feel a kind of invisible thread connecting me to the land; to the inspiring and visionary people we had the good fortune to meet; to the incredibly supportive sisterhood of travelling morot (teachers); and to the coaches, including the brilliant Shira Ackerman Simchovitch, our leader in Israel. Shira provided many moments of treasured camaraderie, insight, and much, much laughter.

What I have noticed that I cannot stop talking about is the amazing hospitality that we were shown throughout our journey. Though I should not have been surprised after so many of my students' parents (Israeli-born or with a connection in Israel) told me about this or that relative I could call on in Israel if needed. Still, I was not quite prepared for how welcomed we felt at every destination. How feted our hosts made us feel with tables laden with delicious food, lovely performances by the children, and thoughtful gifts (some of them made by the children themselves). Most remarkable of all was the gift of time and open-heartedness that the busy teachers, administrators, kibbutzniks, modern-day pioneers, and Federation officers so generously offered. Later, at our Passover seders, we all recited the passage "Let all who are hungry come and eat." I am feeling that sentiment in a deeply, personal way this year.

Angela Bibiyan, JRS at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco

With our week-long Israel seminar freshly behind us, I am sitting in my studio apartment in San Francisco, filled with gratitude; glad to be home and simultaneously homesick at the same time.

Throughout our week in Israel, we visited several exceptional sites every day. Each site offered a number of tangible techniques and information that I felt eager to pass on to colleagues and practice with students. The tools were easy to capture and itemize on paper. In addition to these, I sensed almost immediately that there was something else – additional resources that were beyond the scope of empirical measurement. Over the course of time, I found consistent themes and multiple layers of meaning. The three that stood out most to me were:

  1. Faithfulness to one’s mission and purpose (intention);
  2. Respect for students; and
  3. Teaching as a practice in trust, or, deep listening.

This last theme stood out most towards the end of our time in Israel. Many of these seemed to be intertwined and, looking back, the processes we heard about, witnessed, and even practiced are not easy to compartmentalize.

One of sites we visited was Gan Hagar, an Arab/Jewish kindergarten located in Be’er Sheva. This school has students and staff from both traditions. Everything, even documentation, includes both cultures and languages. Students learn to speak and even write in both languages. When meeting with Afnan Abu-Taha, their executive director, we learned that one of their goals was to uncover some of the common values that are important to both cultures, such as commitment to earth stewardship.

Later in the week, I attended a Shabbat morning service at Kehillat Yedidya. I arrived a few minutes early and flipped to the first few pages of their English/Hebrew siddur (prayer book), Koren Talpiot Siddur, translated by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. When I got to the Sh’ma, I noticed an explanation at the bottom of the page, which explained that Rabbi Sacks wanted to translate sh’ma as “listen” rather than “hear,” because listening is a more active and intentional method than hearing. This resonated personally and seemed to fit nicely with one of the central themes throughout the various sites.

We traveled to Vertigo, located in Netiv HaLamed-Heh. This is an Eco Art Village that is a center for art and ecology in Israel’s rural Elah Valley. At its heart is the Vertigo Dance Company, which founded the Village in order to foster artistic creation engaged with the environment. We were greeted by Tali, one of four sisters who grew up on the kibbutz there. She spoke with us about how the space had evolved over time, sharing her philosophies with us. This included her belief in listening as a tool in directing one’s life. “When there is a lot of resistance, I know that things I’m trying to make happen are not supposed to happen then, and not to push.” Another piece of wisdom she expressed was that, “when the foundation is good, everything that comes from it will be good.” These two pieces seemed to imply the importance of remaining true to one’s values – staying loyal to one’s intention – but with the willingness to be flexible and realize that, ultimately, we are just creating the space for G-d to direct. All we have to do is fully show up, act with integrity, and listen to the cues being given.

Our experience at Vertigo Dance Company mirrored the dance between student and teacher. The teacher “leads” but this leadership is primarily driven by deep listening that stems from a place of respect, as well as setting one’s sights on a value or a set of values. In that way, there is flexibility within structure. Essentially, when we are coming from a place of love, we can relax and trust the cues we read, and trust the process itself. Perhaps that is why the V’ahavtah follows the Sh’ma. All will happen and unfold as it ought to. This trust makes listening possible. We trust that we can afford to open ourselves up to different people, situations, and possibilities.

On a practical level, we all know what it feels like when we can tell that the person we’re speaking with is listening. As Zoketsu Norman Fischer puts it, “To listen, really listen, is to accord respect.” However, this is not always easy. In fact, it’s probably the reason why, when we feel heard by another human being, it is almost magical. Through this experience and the seminar as a whole, including the many examples of what happens when individuals are brave enough to be persistent while remaining receptive, I have a renewed faith and commitment to listening. Training in the art of listening is one of the best actions we can take as educators.

For more information about the JRS program, please contact Denise Moyes-Schnur, Senior Early Childhood Educator, at or 415.499.1223 x8101.

Categories: Community, Israel


May 06, 2016


Denise Moyes-Schnur