January 19, 2020

Early Intervention for Charedi Kindergartens

Rabbi Tzvi Weiss, who teaches preschool-aged boys in the Chasidic Karlin school system, has a degree in special education, but he still felt unequipped for the range of challenges facing preschoolers whose language and social skills were significantly delayed.

“I didn’t know how to teach language or to identify certain problems,” said Weiss, who teaches in one of the most Charedi neighborhoods of Jerusalem, where the entrance of every apartment building is filled with baby strollers, and men in black coats and hats hurry down the narrow streets.

Weiss jumped at the opportunity to participate in a three-year pilot program in seven Charedi neighborhoods throughout Israel that focuses on developing children’s social skills, emotional intelligence, language skills, understanding of facial expressions and interpersonal communication. He and his students are now in the final year of the first-of-its-kind early intervention program that the program’s creators hope will soon be expanded to all Charedi schools in Israel.

Called A Taste of Honey, the program is implemented by the nonprofit organization Achiya, under the auspices of JDC-Ashalim and the Ministry of Education. Achiya was created by leaders in Bnei Brak, a largely Charedi city, to help mainstream Charedi schools deal more effectively with childhood learning differences and developmental delays. Early intervention, educators believe, is the best way to do that.

Achiya’s programs have greatly expanded since its launch in 1993. Its facility in Bnei Brak offers paramedical facilities for boys and girls and soon will offer a children’s library. The organization operated a three-year Language Skills Program for preschoolers and runs a teacher training program with 19 branches that produces “fully certified” male teachers who go on to teach in the insular Charedi community.

Most Charedi boys schools do not employ female teachers due to norms regarding separation of the sexes, so the training of male teachers addresses a communitywide void, said Yitzhak Levin, Achiya’s co-founder and director.

“Twenty years ago, the majority of the Charedi population believed that formal teachers’ training was superfluous,” Achiya’s website notes. Levin added, “Ninety percent of the educators in the Talmud Torah system were Torah scholars who had spent years studying in a post-graduate yeshiva, without having received professional training in educational techniques and methodology.”

A Taste of Honey aims to give teachers more than just the skills necessary to identify and address children’s language issues. Eight pedagogical counselors have been working with 84 preschool teachers to help them address social awkwardness, emotional problems and/or developmental/language delays in 2,600 boys.

Following the core training, the counselors have continued to coach the teachers as they navigate their way in the classroom. They help the teachers design and equip the classroom area in a way that encourages verbal interaction, both among the children and between the children and their teacher. At the conclusion of the three-year pilot, the counselors will continue working within the Ministry of Education’s early childhood education department to continue the program’s goals.

“The goal is for the program to become part of the curriculum — by the Ministry of Education with government funding — for all Charedi kindergartens,” said Tzivia Greenberg, Achiya’s director of resource development.

“Twenty years ago, the majority of the Charedi population believed that formal teachers’ training was superfluous.” – Achivya’s website

During a visit to the Karlin school, Tzaly Perlstein, who coordinates A Taste of Honey, said language skills were especially important for Charedi boys because they needed to read Hebrew, Aramaic and often Yiddish by the middle of elementary school.

Levin said he is proud that the program is creating change within the Charedi community.

“Now we have many Charedi professionals who can identify and address what is lacking in the Charedi educational system and find the appropriate solutions. And, most importantly, with the hechsher [kosher approval] of the biggest rabbis.”

Weiss, the Karlin teacher, said he asked his students to color in a picture of an old man crying during a Purim megillah reading, and asked them why the man might be crying.

Then he asked his students, “What is prayer?” “How do you feel when you pray?”

The boys then offered answers like “happy” and “grown up, like my Abba.”

Weiss said it was “very satisfying” to see the children able to verbalize their emotions. They expressed empathy for others. It left him with a warm feeling — “leibidik.”

This article was originally published in The New York Jewish Week.