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Friday, October 9, 2015

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Israeli Sunday school partners with Hillel

Tags: Campus Jewish learning
Shirin Ezekiel, right, with her husband Tsahi Hayat and son Itamar, helped create a new pre-school program for Kachol Lavan.

TORONTO — While some private Jewish schools struggle to keep enrolment figures from slipping, Kachol Lavan, the supplementary school for Toronto’s growing Israeli community, is enjoying an annual increase in registration.

With three locations in the Greater Toronto Area, Kachol Lavan’s principal Ariel Zaltzman is expecting about 350 students in September– about 10 per cent more than last year – to join the seven-year-old Sunday school program that serves children from junior kindergarten to Grade 8.

Always striving to attract more families, Zaltzman was all ears when Hillel of Greater Toronto’s Israel programming director Shirin Ezekiel, approached him with an idea for a new program for university students with young families.

“For the last 3-1/2 years, I’ve been working with [Israeli] post-doctoral students who are here with their young families for maybe five to seven years, [as well as] former students who have decided to stay because they got work opportunities,” said Ezekiel, who is also a former Israeli and the mother of a three-year-old boy.

“We’d been using the Hillel building and resources to have Shabbat dinners and holiday stuff, since most of us here are without extended family. But we’re also parents, so we want to give our kids the same experience we had,” Ezekiel explained.

“So we started doing activities around the chagim and it felt like a natural step to offer programs for the kids. As the kids are growing, we’re worried about them [retaining the Hebrew] language and what culture and traditions we’re providing them with.”

When she told Zaltzman about her idea and guaranteed that a few families in the downtown area would be interested in a Sunday school program geared for kids between the ages of one and four, he was eager to put something together.

“I was very happy when Shirin approached me and told me there was a group from Hillel that… wanted to retain the Hebrew language, to retain the Israeli culture,” Zaltzman said.

“Kachol Lavan will open programs in any areas where we see a demand.”

Ezekiel sent out an email to a few young Israeli families to get a feel for how big the demand was.

“What happened was that the families I had connected with forwarded the email to their friends, and suddenly I was getting emails from all kinds of people saying they wanted more information,” she said.

The next step was to meet with Michal Hass, one of Kachol Lavan’s teachers, who will be joining University of Toronto in September as an instructor of modern Hebrew.

After polling some of the interested families about what kind of programming they wanted for their kids, Hass began working on a curriculum that combined culture and tradition.

“When I saw the curriculum, I was shocked. It contained books and music that we grew up with as kids. It was everything we had envisioned – a cultural connection,” Ezekiel said, adding that the program was a hit with the families as well.

Initially, Ezekiel and Zaltzman hoped to attract enough children to fill one class, but with weeks until the program starts in September, there are already enough children, about 30, to fill two classes.

Zaltzman insisted that although Kachol Lavan promotes Israeli culture, “this is not just for the Israeli community. It’s for everybody, for the whole community.”

There are about 60 students from non-Hebrew-speaking families in its programs, and about 70 from Russian families who came to Toronto via Israel.

He added that within the last three years or so, there has been a shift within the Israeli community.

“The Israeli community wants more to engage with the local community,” he said.

As a result, the school, which operates as a joint initiative of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Schwartz/Reisman Centre and the Israeli Forum, will offer time for prayer to those who are interested in adding a religious element to the largely cultural, secular program.

“I got many emails this year from families who want their children to say the prayers. Why? Because they were not born in Israel, they will probably stay here and they need to know what’s going on in the [Toronto] Jewish community,” Zaltzman said.

“This year, there will be an extracurricular activity in the morning, before school starts. After the holidays, there will be a session of prayer. Whoever wants to come, come. Whoever doesn’t want, doesn’t have to.”

He hopes the fact that he’s giving the participants a choice, rather than forcing it on them by incorporating it into the regular curriculum, will be more effective.

Ezekiel said she also noticed that young Israeli families are catching on to the idea that becoming a part of the broader Jewish community in Toronto means embracing religious Jewish traditions.

“When we were asking people what they wanted to get out of the program, everybody said, ‘Culture, culture, culture – the books, the songs, etc.’ But then, they also said, ‘What about the Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur?’ They understand that they need to make an effort because it’s not like in Israel, where it’s Rosh Hashanah everywhere.”

 She said in areas like Thornhill, where there is a higher concentration of Jews, you get more of a sense that there is a Jewish holiday, but downtown, it’s not as obvious.

“Especially downtown, you have to make an effort. They realize now that it is a challenge,” Ezekiel said.

In addition to the Sunday school program, Kachol Lavan also offers choir programs for adults and children, Israeli folk dancing, Hebrew classes for non-Israelis, a Grade 6 bar/bat mitzvah program and a Holocaust education program for Grade 7 and 8 students.

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