Mi rotzeh oogah?"
A rhetorical question, for sure. What 5-year-old would deny an offer of cake, especially one that they'd made themselves? That said, all eight children lined up to wash their hands, say a blessing and dig into the chocolate treat with a thread of vanilla glaze drizzled on top.
Snacks like these are provided in preschools everywhere. But this situation was a bit different; the children might have behaved the same, but they certainly didn't sound the same. This particular class of kids, which meets between the hours of noon and 3 p.m., speaks Hebrew -- and only Hebrew -- in an unusual immersion class at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park.
According to Michelle Bernstein, director of the preschool and infant center there, the program is the only one of its kind in the Delaware Valley, and one of the few at synagogues across the country. Two separate classes at Adath Jeshurun practice the immersion method -- one comprised of 3- and 4-year olds, held from 9 a.m. to noon, and the afternoon contingent made up of 4- and 5-year olds.
She did offer a caveat: The program works best when taken five days a week, a prerequisite for enrollment.
The children are led by two native Israeli teachers, Soki Assouline and Nava Lask. Assouline, originally from a kibbutz in the Negev Desert, helped launch the program back in 2000, with just the older kids. But it took off pretty quickly; thus, the need for two age groups.
"This is something special -- I wish other parents would see it. It's a gift," said Assouline, noting with pride that her very first class is now post-Bar-and-Bat-Mitzvah age.
It's hard to argue with the children's verbal abilities. They speak in fluent Hebrew -- Israeli accents down pat -- when requesting everything from a book to peruse or a bathroom break. In those inevitable moments when preschoolers lapse into English, someone immediately corrects them, as if their native tongue had become taboo.
A typical day begins with a kosher lunch the kids bring in themselves, followed by a nap, or at their age, a "rest." Next comes Circle Time, with a rundown of the days of the week and the date, the daily weather and the singing of "Hatikvah," Israeli flag held high in the air at the front of the class. Then, on this particular day, came a rehearsal of Hebrew songs and dances that the children were to perform at their graduation ceremony on June 17; next year, this group will enter kindergarten.
Suddenly, a sneeze. "L'abriut!' chimed in the youngsters.
"Todah," replied the sneezer.
After rehearsal, the children moved on to an art project (in this case, making bracelets for their mothers), followed by some free indoor play and then that tasty cake -- from an Israeli mix, noted Assouline. The day ended outdoors on the playground.
Asked what his favorite activity was, Yoni Maurer, 5, replied -- in Hebrew, of course -- that he liked Legos. The girls seemed to prefer the plastic beadwork involved in the art project.
Assouline noted that many of the decorations and teaching tools come directly from Israel, brought back when she makes visits there during the summer. She said that she searches for books, puzzles and other relevant material featuring the Hebrew alphabet and Jewish culture.
She also stressed that it's so important to impress language on children when they're very young.
"I start early," she declared, "because I want them to be the best."
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