Local Nonprofit Fosters the Future of Jewish Education in Eastern Europe

Written by Ariel Levi on . Posted in Features

“Don’t get swallowed up by the past; live your life in the present and look forward to the future.” This was one of the most important lessons Dalia Golda’s grandparents, Herscu and Mina Butnariv, learned during the Holocaust and imparted to their granddaughter. Growing up in the once-thriving Jewish community in Bucharest, Romania, Golda didn’t have access to a Jewish school so she learned about Judaism from her family. She developed a love for her religion and the Jewish people, coupled with a belief in the future and a desire to give back.

Eight years ago, Golda founded a Jewish kindergarten in Bucharest. This kindergarten, which accepts students from as soon as they can walk through age 6, started with three children; now there are 54 students. Students learn Jewish customs and laws, and grow up with a love of Judaism, Jews, and Israel.

Golda wants to expand her kindergarten into a full-fledged primary school, but she lacks the community and tools that will help her accomplish this goal. Fortunately, there is an organization based in Rockville, Maryland, with the resources to help her. It’s called SOS International: Bridging Jewish Communities.

Founded by Alan Reinitz and Glynis Smith, SOS International partners North American Jewish Day Schools and Early Childhood Centers with European Jewish Day Schools and Early Childhood Centers. The current portfolio consists of three projects, which include 12 Jewish schools, 98 educators, and more than 2,500 students in Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the United States. Through these exchange programs, the organization gives small, distant Jewish communities the resources to expand and improve their educational programs.

“We are with them for the long haul,” said Reinitz, CEO of SOS International. “Our program offers teachers five full years of support, giving them the capability to implement powerful improvements in their European schools.”

Last year, as part of the Morim High School Project, seven teachers from Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community Day School in Baltimore traveled to their partner school, Scheiber Sandor Gimnazium (high school) in Budapest, Hungary, to teach classes and meet with fellow educators. Earlier this month, seven teachers from Budapest visited Beth Tfiloh to teach and observe. Next April, Beth Tfiloh will send 12 high school students to Budapest as part of SOS International’s Limmud Project.

The Morim Early Childhood Program kicked off Dec. 6, when the Eastern European educators arrived in DC to observe and learn from local Jewish schools. Along with Golda, the pioneering cohort included Gosia Pustul, who founded and directs the first Jewish preschool in Krakow, Poland, since the Holocaust; Olga Danek, also from Krakow, who is a Jewish educational consultant for children and adults; and Vanessa Cameron, a teacher at a new school, Gan Balagan, in Sofia, Bulgaria.

A Smorgasbord of Educational Opportunities

The Morim participants hit the ground running for an intense, 10-day immersion into the best teaching practices the Greater Washington Jewish community has to offer. To start, they attended the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s annual Early Childhood Education Conference, along with over 700 educators, where they participated in a powerful seminar on educational responsibility.

The next day, Golda and Cameron went to their partner school, Beth Sholom Early Childhood Center in Rockville, while Danek and Pustul headed to the Bender JCC of Greater Washington. Both preschools use the Reggio Emilia teaching philosophy, which views children as competent learners and teaches them to think independently, problem-solve, and learn in group settings.

“The educators saw how we create a community both in the classroom and in the JCC. They saw how Judaism is woven into the curriculum,” said Ora Cohen Rosenfeld, director of the Sondra and Howard Bender Early Childhood Center. “[They] asked really good questions and shared meaningfully with us. Gosia and Olga told us that everything they saw was new and fascinating.”

Visiting educators observed classes, student meetings, and parent meetings. They met with expert teachers such as pedagogistas and atelieristas, specialized educators who work with educators to implement the Reggio approach to teaching. Mara Bier, an early childhood specialist and consultant, directed the educational immersion in conjunction with SOS International. Before retiring, she was the director of all Greater Washington-area early childhood centers on behalf of Federation.

The Morim participants also visited several area institutions, including Temple Emanuel, The Rose and George Teller Preschool of Shaare Tefila, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, and Berman Hebrew Academy.

At Temple Rodef Shalom Nursery School in Falls Church, Virginia, Fran Pfeffer showed the Morim participants how hands-on the Reggio curriculum is. Pfeffer, who recently retired as the school’s director and helped compose the school’s curriculum and physical environment, explained how the school, including its unique natural playground, was designed to provoke learning, and how the physical environment is the “third teacher” in the classroom. Describing the Morim participants, Pfeffer said, “each morah was interested and enthusiastic and wanted to learn.”

Reflection and Rebuilding

SOS International’s program emphasizes the intentionality and background that frame the practice of teaching. “One might think that school is about creating a curriculum that molds the student into a good Jew and a good citizen. But it’s so much more complicated than this,” Golda explained. “The Reggio educational philosophy teaches that each child has his or her own path. Community and belonging are essential for a child to find her way.”

Reflection is an important part of the Morim experience, giving educators the opportunity to process how what they’ve seen applies to their schools back home. For Cameron, that meant rethinking what it means to be a teacher.

“Reggio believes that teaching starts within,” she said. “First, the teacher must ask herself, ‘who am I and what am I here to teach?’ The teacher then asks what does the child need in order to learn and what are the needs of his family and community? Ultimately teaching is not about inculcating, it’s about connecting.”

Alan Reinitz agreed. “We bring the teachers to America and offer them an array of powerful teaching tools, a delicious pedagogical smorgasbord … They bite into this smorgasbord and find what excites, stimulates, and energizes them,” he said. After 10 intense days, the Morim participants returned home to implement what they learned.

“No other Jewish organization does what we’re doing,” Reinitz concluded. “We’re helping Jewish communities in Europe rebuild from the ashes. Our donors realize that the future of Jewish Europe begins with the children. These teachers … are creating a future for these children.”

To find out more about each educator’s journey, read their blogs at www.sosintl.org/ec-morim-project-2017/. Learn more about SOS International at www.sosintl.org.

By Ariel Levi

 Ariel is a lifelong student. He teaches and tutors many subjects, including piano. Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .