After returning from Israel I ran into Jill and Sophie Hicks at the grocery store. Jill was PTA Coordinator during my first year at ECDC and her daughter Sophie was in the Fours. Now as a young girl entering second grade, Sophie asked “What is Israel like?” I thought the question showed remarkable curiosity. Based on my twelve-day experience, I will attempt to answer Sophie’s question for those of you who share her curiosity and have not yet been to Israel.
Israel is sandy and brown with some areas of lush green. The arid terrain of Israel is in immediate and stark contrast to what we know in rainy Pennsylvania. As a bus traveler, I was fascinated by the ever-changing desert topography.
The vegetation in Israel is almost completely different from what we know. During an evening stroll in Karmiel, I saw fig, date, olive, pomegranate and Etrog trees. At first I wondered about the intense aroma, but then noticed the huge bushes of rosemary growing everywhere.
I now understand that Israel really needs more trees. Over the past century, Israeli settlers have made good use of the short rainy season in winter, to store water for cultivating the sandy soil. In earlier years, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) utilized contributions to plant pine trees. Now the funds are used for indigenous varieties. I visited Neot Kedumim Park (and highly recommend it), one of the many sites supported by JNF funds.
Israel is a contrast of very old and very new. In Jerusalem, we walked through tunnels along the Western Wall of the Old City, which were originally built by King Herod in 19 BCE and remain from the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. I had never before walked through a 2000 year old building, yet what astounded me more was the newness of Israel. One hundred years ago there were only sand dunes where Tel Aviv , a metropolitan area of 3.5 million, stands today.
The Mediterranean Sea is blue and breathtaking. Flying into Ben Gurion Airport, I had a chance to spot the coast of Tel Aviv with its white beach and blue waters. Ten days later I was thrilled to actually be in the Mediterranean Sea and to discover that the water temperature is just right (for someone who hates cold water).
The people of Israel speak Hebrew – and English. Almost all signs and labels are in Hebrew only, but it is very comfortable to be an English language speaker. The people of Israel respond to English in a friendly forthcoming way.
The preschools of Israel are public. The Israeli Ministry of Education funds education for children starting at age three. Early Childhood Educators get paid on the same scale as Primary and Secondary Teachers.
Preschool classrooms are large. There are up to 35 children in a classroom with one Teacher and Two Assistants. The children sit in chairs for their meeting times and there is almost no wiggling! There are fewer toys in the classroom. The children play with common household objects and even make lemonade from real lemons.
The outdoor play areas are spacious and sandy. There is no shortage of digging area for Israeli preschoolers, where sand play and gardening are integral parts of every playground. Other than a sliding board, I saw almost no climbing equipment. Surprisingly, the junkyard playground is a well-established and kibbutz-born tradition in Israel. Families donate everything from old microwaves, cushions and car seats. Children create their own small worlds with the “junk” with seemingly no restrictions from teachers.
Shabbat candle-lighting is conducted in the hotel lobby. How wonderful to be in Jerusalem on a Friday evening where candles are available for communal lighting at sundown and where hotel patrons share Shabbat wine, bread and song at long tables.
Israel is hot in the summer. While swimming in the Mediterranean Sea is refreshing, floating in the Dead Sea is most definitely not. However, it was a memorable experience and one that I would not forego next time.
Attending a Bar Mitzvah on Masada provides an instant connection to the ancient history and future of the Jewish people. Our CWB group was fortunate to receive an invitation to a Bar Mitzvah complete with Klezmer musicians. And only in Israel could our videographer stand in as the tenth member of a minyan.
The population of Israel is diverse. I met people whose grandparents or parents were from Poland, Germany, Syria and Yemen. One of our guides shared her story of getting married after the Six-Day War and having her first child during the Yom Kippur War. How moving to learn history through such a personal lens.
What is Israel like? Fabulous, awesome, fascinating, inspiring, complex, contradictory and fun!
It was a blast to travel with my friends and coworkers of Temple Emanuel ECDC and other Pittsburgh Jewish early childhood programs. Thank you to Classrooms without Borders of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the Zolot Israel Adult Scholarship Fund of Temple Emanuel for making this trip possible.