For many American Jewish children, their first educational encounter with Israel occurs not in Hebrew school or day school classrooms but in Jewish early childhood centers. Over 100,000 Jewish children enroll annually in Jewish early childhood institutions in the United States (Schaap & Goodman., 2004), and for these children, learning about Israel is part of their Jewish educational experience even at the age of 3 or 4 years old. Books about Israel are part of early childhood classroom libraries (Alexander, 2013); 3- and 4-year-olds are taken on elaborate pretend trips to Israel (Applebaum & Zakai, 2020); and these very young children often have opportunities to eat Israeli foods, listen to Israeli music, and meet Israeli adults who work in or visit their schools. Despite this, virtually nothing is known about how the youngest learners in Jewish educational institutions think and feel about Israel. This knowledge is essential for scholars attempting to understand how relationships to Israel develop over a lifetime and for practitioners eager to design rich, age-appropriate learning experiences.
This article seeks to address this gap by investigating the ways that 3- and 4-year-old children enrolled in Jewish early childhood centers conceive of Israel. The authors argue that even very young Jewish children are actively engaged in a process of sense-making about Israel. Three- and 4-year-old children work to construct an understanding of Israel as a (foreign) country and as a Jewish place. They do not yet, at this age, seek to imbue Israel with personal meaning or consider their own connections to it. Thus, 3- and 4-year-olds are both similar to and markedly different from older Jewish children, and educational experiences geared toward them ought to reflect greater sensitivity to the questions and ideas which they do—and do not yet—consider.
This study offers a first attempt at understanding how very young children conceive of Israel. Drawing upon research involving 65 children 3 and 4 years old enrolled in Jewish early childhood institutions, this study investigates the ways that some of the youngest learners in Jewish educational settings do—and the ways that they do not—think about Israel. In doing so, it highlights both the unique challenges of, and next steps for, the intersection of Jewish early childhood education and developmentally sensitive Israel education.
The questions that sit at the heart of this study arose from an ongoing collaboration between the researchers and a group of early childhood educators in a large metropolitan area with a sizable population of Jews. The educators were part of a “Community of Practice” (CoP) studying Israel education in early childhood settings, who engaged the researchers as collaborative partners to provide both facilitation and field expertise. Over the course of two years, the researchers functioned in three capacities: as teacher educators who worked with CoP members to reflect upon their practices of early childhood Israel education, as scholars attempting to understand the distinct practices and questions of early childhood Israel education (Applebaum & Zakai, 2020), and as research collaborators helping the educators ask and seek answers to their own questions (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2001; Slavit et al., 2009).
Before experimenting with and reflecting on specific learning activities for this age group, the educators needed to know: What do 3- and 4-year-old children think, understand, and feel about Israel?
The practitioner-researchers and researchers collaborated to recruit children from each of the four early childhood centers that participated in this study. The sites ranged in size from 61 to 141 families and varied in denominational affiliation and educational ideology. These sites included two schools affiliated with a community center, one housed at a synagogue, and one that was part of a larger Jewish day school.
Interviewing children relies on a methodological assumption that children are capable of recounting and reflecting on their own experiences. The authors used semi-structured group interviews, based on a prewritten script that allowed for focused yet flexible conversations between practitioner-interviewer and children (Drever, 1995; Gillham, 2005). Drawing upon prior interview protocols developed for Jewish 5-year-olds (Zakai, 2015) and the questions of the practitioner-researchers, children answered open-ended questions like: What is Israel? Where is Israel?
Though asking children direct questions can be useful, young children cannot always call up all that they know just because they are asked about it. Therefore, in addition to group interviews, children participated in a series of other exercises commonly referred to by scholars as “elicitation” (Allett, 2010; Harper, 2002) or “cueing the memory” (Gopnik, 2010) and by early childhood educators as “provocations” (Wurm, 2005). Working with one child at a time, the practitioner-researcher and child together explored a large box that contained “a present from Israel.” Inside were various objects from Israel including postcards, figurines, a small toy El Al airplane, an Israeli flag, Israeli coins, and an audio recording of the Israeli national anthem. As the child chose items to explore, the practitioner-researcher engaged in co-constructed play and asked open-ended follow-up questions such as “What do you think this is?,” “What do you notice about it?,” and “What do people in Israel do with this?”
Paired with the individual elicitation exercises, each child was invited to complete a drawing task. The practitioner-researcher offered a piece of blank white paper and a black pen, asking the child to “draw me a picture of Israel or something that is in Israel.” After the child indicated that the drawing was finished, the practitioner-researcher asked open-ended follow-up questions such as, “What did you make?,” “What is happening in this picture?,” or “How do you know this is in Israel?” Drawings were collected, and the child/practitioner-researcher interactions about the drawing were recorded and transcribed.
While interviews, elicitation/provocation exercises, and a drawing task are the primary sources of data for this study, teacher documentation served as a supplementary data source. As part of their regular teaching practice, practitioner-researchers collected and shared a curated collection of children’s words, interactions, and artistic expressions in the classroom. This allowed the authors to triangulate data, making sure that the findings from other data sources faithfully represented larger trends from the school settings.
Data were analyzed in a four-step collaborative process that drew on the expertise of both researchers and practitioner-researchers.
Like older children and teens in other Jewish educational institutions, children enrolled in Jewish early childhood centers are actively working to construct an understanding of the world and how it works. For 3- and 4-year-old Jewish children, the task of making sense of the world includes an attempt to sort through the fact that the world is divided into countries, and those countries include a faraway place called Israel. Children understand quite a lot about Israel as a country even at age 3 and 4. They understand that Israel is a distinct country, and as such it has its own food, currency, and language. The children can all understand that Israel is geographically distant from their own homes, many can identify several famous Israeli landmarks, and some can even explain that Israel is in a different time zone. More than that, 3- and 4-year-old Jewish children are beginning to make sense of Israel as a distinctly Jewish place. They explicitly reflect on Israel as a place for Jewish people, Jewish ritual and celebration, Jewish stories, and Jewish language.
Three- and 4-year-olds do not, however, seem to do what many of their educators explicitly want them to do: express emotional attachment to Israel. Even as young children do important intellectual work to situate Israel as a country and as a distinctly Jewish place, they do not—or perhaps do not yet —situate Israel as a source of personal meaning in their own Jewish lives. Thus, it appears that, in direct contradistinction to prior assumptions in Jewish education that either connection precedes knowledge or that the two develop in tandem, in fact a baseline level of knowledge precedes connection. Only after developing a basic understanding that the world is divided into nations and countries is it even possible to develop a sense of national attachment or collective affiliation, the cognitive lays a foundation for the development of the affective.
What still remains unclear is when and how the seeds of knowledge planted today may transform into the fruit of collective affiliation at a later point. If, as the authors suspect, Israel education is akin to early literacy in which an early period of learning allows for later leaps, then what are the essential analogs in Israel education that will allow children to make later cognitive and emotional connections? Where, exactly, is the tipping point between cognition alone and cognition intermingled with emotional attachment? Does it happen at a particular developmental age, or after a particular saturation point of early exposure, or as the result of other interlocking factors? How does the context of family, synagogue, and community contribute to both cognitive and emotional growth and connection? Further research is necessary to explore these questions.
As the field of Jewish education further investigates the ways that the youngest Jewish learners think about—and eventually come to feel about— Israel and other aspects of Jewish life, researcher-practitioner partnerships will be essential for continuing to build fieldwide knowledge. Drawing upon researchers’ abilities to gather and make sense of data, and educators’ keen understanding of children and their needs, collaborative investigations create the possibility of better understanding how young Jewish learners view Jewish living and Jewish education.
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