This article examines the practice of pretend Israel trips in Jewish early childhood education. Jewish early childhood educators who work in markedly different preschool settings, and who have differing beliefs about Israel and Israel education, nonetheless converge on a practice of pretend trips to Israel that remains remarkably stable across settings. This article examines how and why these pretend trips have become part of the “grammar” of Jewish early childhood education, illuminating a practice that is simultaneously beloved and unsatisfying for Jewish early childhood educators who care about early childhood education and Israel education.
What are the common features of pretend trips to Israel in Jewish early childhood education? How and why do educators from different institutional settings, and with differing beliefs about Israel education, plan and facilitate similar pretend trips? And what questions, concerns, and dilemmas arise for Jewish early childhood educators as they do so? These are the questions we examine in this article.
Early childhood educators are thoughtfully engaged in the challenging work of Israel education. As the adults tasked with offering the first formal educational space in which young Jewish learners might encounter Israel, they feel a significant sense of responsibility. And they take pride in their ability to make children’s first engagement with Israel a joyful – even if pretend – experience. In the words of one educator in this study, “I think they have a fabulous time doing the things I create for them, and I would like to think that some connection in them gets buried and maybe it’s going to kick in later. I’m hoping that will happen.” This hope is grounded in their best efforts and built on their intuition as early childhood educators.
Yet while early childhood Jewish educators proudly display great expertise in early childhood education, they rarely have any formal training in Israel education and do not often see themselves as part of larger communal public or scholarly discourse about how to teach Israel. Providing training and support for early childhood Jewish educators to see themselves as part of that conversation not only would help contextualize their work, but also may be necessary to make possible the kinds of shifts and innovations to the practice of pretend trips that would help them fulfill their hopes. The educators in this study who voiced greatest unease about pretend trips frequently ended up tweaking details that made little structural difference to the pretend trip. Giving them access to larger conversations currently under debate in the field of Israel education might allow them to engage in more purposeful tinkering that would better allow them to meet their own goals while laying the groundwork for lifelong learning about Israel.
The larger field of Israel education, too, is missing the voices and contributions of these early childhood educators. Continued study of – and with – early childhood educators who engage in Israel education will make important contributions to discussions of the unique ways that Israel education functions in the Jewish early childhood context. We envision future research – with the essential input and collaboration of early childhood Jewish educators – about how preschool students feel about and understand Israel, and how early childhood educators themselves approach the age-specific demands of their work. Only with additional scholarship that honors the developmental needs of young children and the particular pedagogical practices and questions of early childhood educators will it be possible to build a comprehensive understanding of the ways that Israel and Israel education function in Jewish educational contexts. The ultimate goal is to map the entire field, from preschool to campuses, schools to synagogues, trips that require official passports – and those that require only imagination.