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Growing educators in the Garden State

East Brunswick school is international leader in Jewish Montessori training

A third grader works with grammar symbols and shapes to learn language construction. Photo courtesy Netivot
A third grader works with grammar symbols and shapes to learn language construction. Photo courtesy Netivot

Yeshivat Netivot Montessori in East Brunswick has gained an international reputation for innovative curriculum and educator training.

The Orthodox day school’s curriculum guides have been sold to Jewish day schools throughout North America.

For the last seven summers, teachers from around the country have traveled to the Jewish Montessori Training Center operated by Netivot, whose motto is, “Inspiring teachers to follow the path of every child.” The eighth training session is scheduled June 25-July 12, 2019.

“We are the first Orthodox Jewish Montessori yeshiva day school offering early childhood and elementary school,” said Rivky Ross, head of the 18-year-old school, one of 40 Jewish Montessori schools in the country. The school enrolls 170 students from infants through eighth grade.

Last month, Netivot trained its first non-day school educator, Eran Livni, who runs a Hebrew school for three Conservative synagogues based in Norfolk, Va. “I came to learn the Montessori pedagogy for Chumash [Torah], tefillah [prayer], rituals, and ethics,” he told NJJN on a Dec. 27 visit. “The way they teach Montessori here, I want to bring that method to my school.” Livni’s school is comprised of 96 students in kindergarten through seventh grade.

Netivot’s teaching methods have attracted educators beyond the borders of the United States. Several teachers from a Mexico City day school have come to East Brunswick in recent years, and Netivot has continued to provide them with consulting services. And in the summer of 2017, Ross with Adi Yarmush, director of the school’s early childhood program, went to Israel to conduct a two-day workshop for 35 Israeli educators.

The school recently received a “significant” grant from an anonymous New York-based Jewish foundation, which asked that both the amount and its name not be made public. Ross said the grant would be used to fund on-site training scholarships and Netivot staff visits to other schools.   

In a late December visit to the school older students sat in groups or read by themselves. Others huddled around a teacher sitting at a computer.
And a group of girls braided dough for the school’s student business venture in which loaves of challah — varieties include plain, crumble topping, whole wheat, and garlic —are sold to parents to raise money for student trips and projects.   

Earlier in the day, a group of girls gathered for a voluntary Torah lesson from teacher Zev Rappaport while eating their Nicely Sliced lunches, another business venture run by seventh- and eighth-grade students who advertise and prepare weekly lunches ordered by parents.

Sixth-grade girls, from left, Kate Schwartz, Nili Baumgarten, Irene Lipstein, and Yaffa Gottlieb braid dough for their challah fund-raiser. Photo by Debra Rubin

That self-motivation is at the core of Montessori education. At training sessions, attendees receive instruction in everything from curriculum development, classroom management, and record keeping to how to teach math, English, holidays, and Torah to using the classroom as a midot (respect) laboratory.

Melody Kurson, the school’s director of curriculum and director of the elementary training center, said all materials are “replicable and flexible” and can be adapted to any Jewish Montessori school.

“The school’s focus is primarily on Chumash,” she said, noting that this requires the creation of a foundation “to pull apart the different words of the Chumash to understand what goes on in the text.”

The Jewish studies program “ties beautifully to the general studies Montessori program,” said Kurson. “They’re all integrated so everything complements each other.”

By way of example she picked up a red ball, representing a verb, from a tray containing objects of various shapes and colors; all of of the items in the tray represent various components of language.

“As an entrance point to learning the function of a verb, we ask them [students], ‘Unlike a rug or chair, can you point to a clap?’” she said. “No. You can’t because it’s an action. They learn a verb gives life to a sentence.”

Using the different objects, students learn to color code the different parts of speech, said Kurson, with red signifying a verb because “it’s like the red blood moving through your body”; it’s a ball to remind them of the spherical sun, which “gives energy to the Earth just like the verb gives energy and life to the sentence,” she explained.

The same symbols are used for learning biblical and spoken Hebrew to foster an understanding of how language is constructed. “When they look at any paragraph in Hebrew, they can easily identify and break down the words into parts of speech,” said Kurson. The method is one example of the Montessori principle of one concept building on another to make learning “easy and accessible for kids and it all ties together.”

Regarding introducing young children to Hebrew, “the objective is to get friendly with the letters,” said Yarmush.

“We use a lot of objects to connect children to Ivrit [Hebrew] and get them to remember,” she said, noting that for the letter “bet,” they may use a banana, bread, or bisamim [spices]. They may trace letters on sandpaper to gain “muscle memory.”         

Netivot was started by ChanaSzenes Mischel, who held classes in her Highland Park basement before moving the school to the Highland Park Conservative Temple a year later, and then to Congregation Beth-El in Edison. In 2014, it moved to the space at East Brunswick Jewish Center that had been vacated by the former Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley when it closed the year before. Students come from such communities as East Brunswick, Highland Park, Long Branch, and Linden, and there is even one student from Long Island.         

Kate Schwartz, a sixth grader from Highland Park, said she liked the school “because they adjust to you.” 

“If something isn’t right for you, they put you in something different,” she explained. “A lot of schools don’t have that.”

Kate said she used to have trouble reading, but the school gave her a reading specialist who “helped me a lot.” 

“The thing I like best is the freedom,” she said. “It’s not like you have to do math or English right now.”

Anna Hercman, a fifth grader from Edison, had a similar perspective. “You get trusted to do your work,” she said. “You become your own daily planner and get to design your own work. And the teachers help you and are so loving and caring.”

And, Anna added, there’s something to say about being different.

“It’s not like a regular classroom with desks.”

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