A year-and-a-half ago, Jorie Bernhardt was challenged to create an innovative program for families with young children at Temple of Aaron. Fortunately for her, working at the Hands-On Museum in Ann Arbor, Mich., gave her insight into just what type of program to create.
Now her 5 Senses of Judaism program is going nationwide.
Bernhardt, the director of youth and family programming at ToA, received grant funding from the National Center to Encourage Judaism, and now Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit, N.J., will pilot the program BH will pilot Bernhardt’s program beginning Oct. 26.
“It’s an interactive program that I think is a great way for kids to learn,” said Margie Ticknor, president of Congregation Beth Hatikvah. “It’s about kneading the challah, using carrots for chicken soup to make ink marks on paper, and things like that. So I think it really hits on a great way of educating children by having them actively participating in it. And it’s not just about music.”
The program is sensory-based, informal education. On a typical Sunday, Bernhardt said 30-40 families – 60-80 people – including ToA members, members of other synagogues, and nonaffiliates attend 5 Senses of Judaism. Bernhardt said that she stresses that the program isn’t a membership play.
“It’s about socialization and building community, having kids building their comfort level at a synagogue,” she said. “Research shows that if you build a positive experience, they’ll want to come back. First impressions are really important and being warm and welcoming is really important.”
Ticknor said that the program’s simplicity comes from Bernhardt not approaching it like a Jewish educator.
“I think that’s part of why it seems so simple, but also why it took so long for someone to come up with it,” Ticknor said. “She flipped it on its ear.”
Last month, Bernhardt and Rabbi Micah Miller went to New Jersey to train the CBH staff in the program, familiarizing themselves with the methodology and the importance of why playing is important.
“You often don’t get enough of (play) at the preschool and kindergarten age and school is becoming more academic,” Bernhardt said, drawing on her museum experience. “Instead of formal learning, it’s about building community and the social aspect: play and engaging senses.”
Lindsey Horowitz, mother of a 2- and 5-year-old, said the programs are engaging and meaningful: the activities can be implemented in everyday life.
“Last year Jorie had a service project that the kids completed to support people who were homeless. We have continued making our bags for people who are homeless and pass them out,” she said. “The program is very engaging, provides a great sense of awareness of the learning—all of the senses are definitely included in the activities. We try not to miss a program with the 5 Senses of Judaism as we know we can always count on the programming being incredibly age-appropriate and engaging.”