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Taking in Judaism with all the senses
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Taking in Judaism with all the senses

New program aims to engage young families in Jewish life

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

At the challah station, looking, smelling, and smushing bags of dough that can be baked at home. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg
At the challah station, looking, smelling, and smushing bags of dough that can be baked at home. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg

Eva liked the b’samim station — where she made her own bag of spices to sniff during the Havdalah ceremony — the best because “it really wakes me up!” she said, holding the small organza pouch filled with cinnamon, cloves, orange peel, star anise, and other aromatic spices. A few of the other children preferred the stamping station, where they decorated challah covers, while others particularly enjoyed “baking” challah (the kids added wet ingredients to dry ones already in Ziploc bags and then shook and smushed the bags and smelled the yeast as it bloomed). They were sent home with a recipe for finishing the process and baking the loaves.

Welcome to the 5 Senses of Judaism at Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit, where children use their eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and hands to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel the Shabbat experience.

This particular session was held on Sept. 4, a Wednesday, and volunteers at the Reconstructionist congregation were participating in a training for the project with its creator, Jorie Bernhardt, director of youth and family programming at Temple of Aaron in Saint Paul, Minn.

The program is meant for toddlers, but a group of slightly older children came for a dry run in advance of the program’s launching on Oct. 26. They were 5 and 6 years old, and so may have been just a little too advanced for the sensory tub filled with raw beans (think cholent) or the felt and DIY quilted “set the Shabbat table” activity. But they were good sports and took it all in, including the nuggets of information about Shabbat and the particulars of the rituals the volunteers offered as the children wandered among the stations.

The idea, according to Bernhardt, is to draw young families into the synagogue, where the kids can participate in the activities and play, and everyone can socialize and make connections. “We want kids to feel comfortable here, to recognize this building as a positive experience, as a place where they have fun and that they want to be a part of,” said Bernhardt. “The Jewish education component is like when you make brownies, and you want to slip in some nutrients, and so you puree some spinach or some black beans, and you don’t tell the kids.” In the end, she said, “It’s about building community.”

Some of the volunteers wondered, before the children came, if the activities would really fill an hour. “You would be surprised,” was Bernhardt’s response. At some of the stations “they can really sit and just have fun,” she said; other kids will wander about in the space “figuring out what they want to do.” And there’s always an opportunity to engage the youngsters in conversation. “They love to tell you things,” Bernhardt said. “They will tell you they have a stuffed dog named Blue who likes to sit at the table with them.”

Children at the 5 Senses workshop at Beit Hatikvah decorate challah covers.

One thing they won’t do is provide samples of completed challah covers or instructions on setting the table. Bernhardt believes the children should be left to enjoy their own creations and use their imaginations rather than be hindered by having a “correct” way to do things in front of them. It’s a Montessori approach.

Having been asked to create a program that would appeal to families with young children at her home congregation, Bernhardt recalled thinking, “I wanted it to be sensory focused, because that is how children learn best, through touching, smelling, tasting occasionally.”

The series Bernhardt launched in March 2018 at Temple of Aaron began with a workshop on Passover. It attracted 80 people, some of whom had never been inside the synagogue. Others hadn’t been there since they were teens themselves, according to Bernhardt. Once she realized there was a real need for what she was doing, she secured a grant from the National Center to Encourage Judaism to expand the project.

And that’s how Beth Hatikvah’s president, Margie Ticknor, found it. Since the congregation has no preschool, they were looking for a program that would appeal to young families, Ticknor explained, and she saw the 5 Senses program as a perfect fit. Beth Hatikvah — which will launch the program Saturday, Oct. 26, and offer it about every six weeks throughout the year — is the first synagogue, outside of Temple of Aaron, to pilot the project.


If you go

What: 5 Senses of Judaism
Where: Congregation Beth Hatikvah, Summit
When: Saturdays, 9:30-11 a.m.: Oct. 26, Shabbat; Dec. 14, Chanukah; Feb. 8, Tu b’Shvat; March 14, Purim; April 25, Israel
Cost: Free
RSVP: 908-277-0200 or office@bethhatikvah.org


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