It is reasonable to believe that DVDs and other electronic media (e.g., interactive games, websites, mobile applications) can play a role in Jewish education and identity among young children and their families. One such educational media project is Shalom Sesame, a series of 12 DVDs (and accompanying website and YouTube channel) that were released in 2010 and 2011, and designed to enhance preschoolers’ understanding of Israel and Jewish culture in all its diversity. Each half-hour DVD addresses a central theme—such as Israel, Hebrew, or Jewish holidays, customs, and values. For example, in one DVD, young viewers are introduced to three ritual objects needed for the Shabbat table—candles, kiddush cup, and challah—through a story in which Grover (the popular Sesame Street Muppet) tries to help his Israeli friends on Rechov Sumsum (Sesame Street) prepare for Shabbat, but misunderstands and keeps “cleaning up” by putting away the very things that they need to welcome Shabbat. Other segments in the DVD include live-action films of making challah, families celebrating Shabbat, and children in an Israeli preschool having a Shabbat party, plus an animated segment about the seven days of creation, among others.
The purpose of this research project was to explore Shalom Sesame’s potential value for families, as a case study of the potential of media to contribute to Jewish education in the preschool years. Specifically, the research examined certain aspects of children's and families’ learning from these DVDs by addressing the following questions:
- How is Shalom Sesame used in the homes of preschoolers?
- Do preschoolers learn from Shalom Sesame, and if so, what do they learn?
- What is the value of Shalom Sesame for Jewish families?
- Does the impact of Shalom Sesame extend beyond direct learning from the screen?
To answer the above questions, we conducted a program of research that consisted of three complementary phases, using a variety of methods: a family survey, an ethnographic study of home use, and a quasi-experimental study of children.
Approaching our study via triangulated methods capitalized on the strengths of each method and yielded a richer understanding of the complicated nature of the phenomenon at hand. The quasi-experimental study contributed evidence of learning, the family survey tapped into attitudes among a large sample in multiple locations, and the ethnographic study created a deeper relationship with the families and examined use in natural home environments. The data from the three sources complemented and reinforced each other. For example, parents’ anecdotal recollections of their children's learning were confirmed in the quasi-experimental study, and parents’ survey responses could be better contextualized following ethnographic home observations. Thus, the use of multiple methods offers a more holistic and complete picture of the role Shalom Sesame in Jewish families’ life than any one method can provide on its own.
The participants in this three-phase study came from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds and geographical regions, many of them secular or unaffiliated. Yet, regardless of their level of religious observance and location, nearly all of the families in the family survey (94%) and ethnographic study felt that it was very important to maintain their children's Jewish identity (typically for reasons related to the parents’ own sense of Jewish identity or continuity). This was particularly true for interfaith families who also live outside established Jewish communities.
With that in mind, it is understandable that families welcomed Shalom Sesame into their homes as a resource for their children's Jewish education, particularly given the scarcity of other visual media about Jewish education for young children.
The results of the experimental phase of the study showed Shalom Sesame to be an effective educational tool, producing significant gains in children's knowledge and understanding. Moreover, families’ use of Shalom Sesame produced outcomes beyond its direct impact on children's knowledge as well. Data from all three studies revealed that, for many families, Shalom Sesame served as a springboard for follow-up discussion and activities, whether in terms of added or enhanced religious and cultural practice (e.g., celebrating holidays), engaging more with Israel or the Hebrew language, or simply playing with a dreidel or making falafel. It is noteworthy that many parents talked about the value of Shalom Sesame in the context of contributing to or reinforcing their children's developing Jewish identity, their connections to their families, Israel, and/or the Jewish people, and their sense of self. Particularly for families with limited access to Jewish communities and resources, Shalom Sesame provided a way for parents to help their children develop a sense of connection to the broader Jewish community, to deepen their own connection, as well as to educate non-Jewish relatives and friends in the case of interfaith marriages.
As data from the ethnographic study attest, viewing and discussing Shalom Sesame seemed to stir strong emotions, frustrations, and longing within these families, and stimulated in-depth discussions about their Jewish identity and lives as a minority. This was a particularly strong sentiment within the Southern Illinois participants, who shared the difficulties involved in raising Jewish children in an environment where they feel different and disconnected from a community. The parents were grateful for the availability of the DVDs and particularly the fact that they did not feel that Shalom Sesame was pushing a religious agenda, but simply presenting information in a straightforward way. Many of the home visits and discussions of the use of Shalom Sesame seem to scratch the surface of important and complex issues of Jewish identity, as well as families’ negotiations concerning them. Shalom Sesame seems to have tapped a very real and deep need of Jewish families in the United States, regardless of their circumstances and their degree of affiliation with Judaism, and offer them more than education regarding factual information about Israel and Jewish culture. It seems to be offering them a sense of community as well.
Naturally, effective Jewish education draws on many sources (e.g., family, school, synagogue, community), and media are only one piece of that mosaic. However, the data from the present research indicate that videos such as Shalom Sesame can be a powerful resource in the home, and perhaps for classroom use as well. Well-designed, quality media (Shalom Sesame, in this case) can make a significant contribution, and may be of particular value for those who lack alternative opportunities and resources.