January 19, 2020

Searching for Hebrew in America

Organi Daycare in Reseda has all the trappings of a typical preschool — and then some. Tricycles are stationed out front, and the rest of its half-acre property features a tree house, a vegetable garden and even a bonfire area.

But what really sets the facility apart is a certain vibe that makes it particularly attractive to Israelis. Not only is everything done in Hebrew, parents say it feels like a kibbutz.

“Once you get there, you feel like you are in Israel,” said Sherri Elizam, who sent her daughters Ella and Shaya there before they turned 5. “The Hebrew part was important for me, but we speak only Hebrew at home, so I knew they are going to know Hebrew regardless. What I was looking for was the Israeli culture and the freedom to run around and express yourself.”

Many Israeli parents living in Los Angeles don’t think twice about which day care center they should send their kids to — as long as it’s an Israeli-owned center where the children speak in Hebrew and celebrate the Jewish holidays Israeli-style. Such facilities are common around the city and the San Fernando Valley, mostly in private homes.

Organi allows the 14 children in its care — all of whom are ages 2 to 5 and come from homes with at least one Israeli parent — to roam about the place to pet and feed the animals, collect chicken eggs, play with bunnies and a guinea pig, or care for the garden.

Ori Nottea bought the place two years ago to house the day care center she ran previously in Tarzana.

Born in Israel, Nottea arrived in Los Angeles in 1999 and studied child development and yoga for children at Santa Monica College and Pierce College. She taught yoga and was a teacher at Stephen Wise Temple and the Jewish Community Center at Milken before opening her own day care center, with 11 children enrolled, nine years ago.

As a mother of two boys, 11 and 9, she knew exactly how she wanted her day care facility to look — with an emphasis on its “Israeliness.”

“Once you get there, you feel like you are in Israel.” — Sherri Elizam

“I speak to the kids only in Hebrew and all of our activities are in Hebrew,” she said. “But we also expose them to some English during the day because, after all, they are going to continue from here to a school where they will need to speak English, and we want them to be ready.”

Parents at Organi say they want their children to have the same childhood experience they had while growing up in Israel, including the country’s unique Hebrew songs and holiday activities.

“On Israel’s Independence Day, the kids simulate a flight to Israel and dress up like soldiers,” Nottea said. “We eat and prepare Israeli dishes such as falafel, tahini and Israeli salad. The kids cut the salad themselves and participate in all the preparation of the food. I have a tabun oven in the yard where we prepare pita bread. On Tu b’Shevat, I invite the parents to plant trees. On my first year here, the parents and the children planted together all the fruit trees you see here.”

It’s hard to distinguish between Nottea’s home and the day care center. Her house looks like an extension of the center at the rear, with playful murals on the walls.

Not far from Organi, in Winnetka, Hadas Kamry operates another Israeli-style day care center in her home, called Hadas Day Care. Israeli-born, she has lived in the United States for 25 years, first in New York, where she also ran a day care center, and the past 13 years in Los Angeles.

Like at Organi, all of the children at Hadas Day Care speak Hebrew and come from Israeli homes.

“It’s important for the parents that their kids will speak Hebrew, in part in order to maintain their connection to Israel and their roots, and in part so they will be able to talk to their grandparents and family in Israel,” Kamry said. “I make sure to talk to them only in Hebrew. All of the songs we learn are in Hebrew. We will never sing, for example, “Oh, Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,” during Chanukah, but instead, “Sevivon, Sov Sov Sov.”

While other day care children learn their ABCs, children at Hadas learn their Aleph Bet and the names of colors and seasons in Hebrew. Kamry said she hopes that once the children graduate and move on to elementary school, they will still remember their Hebrew.

Eyal Shemesh from Tarzana sent his two sons, Oz and Lior, to Hadas.

“I wanted that my children’s first language would be Hebrew and that they would be able to communicate with our family in Israel,” he said. “Once they have graduated and moved to kindergarten … in order to maintain their Hebrew language and connection to Israel, I enrolled them in the Israeli scouts and to AMI School, an afterschool program, where they learn Hebrew once a week.”

Throughout the years, Kamry said, she has found that many of the parents have developed close friendships that started with play dates between their kids and continued with getting together during weekends and holidays.

“Many of the parents don’t have their extended families here, so they are looking for connections with other Israeli parents, and they find them here,” she said. “I arrange for gatherings with the parents, like Shabbat dinners, activities in the park during Passover, Purim parties.”