A ‘New England’ nursery school in Israel


A month after making aliyah (immigrating) to Israel, I began working at Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that assists immigrants from North America and the United Kingdom.

My first day on the job included one of Nefesh B’Nefesh’s famous arrival ceremonies, when thousands gather at Ben Gurion Airport to greet the latest immigrants.

Shortly after that, while having Shabbat dinner at a friend’s home, I met a young woman named Rebecca Zibman. I introduced myself, saying it was nice to meet her.

“We’ve met before,” she replied.

I drew a blank. She explained that I had “greeted” her at the airport. While we didn’t actually interact during my first day on the job, Rebecca recognized me as a fellow New Englander. Among other connections, Rebecca, who is originally from Newton, Massachusetts, attended Maimonides High School, in Brookline, Massachusetts, graduating a year before my sister. We had many friends in common. And we’ve been friends ever since that Shabbat meal.

Back in the U.S., Rebecca and her longtime friend Gila Betesh would frequently swap stories about their experiences working in nursery schools. They talked about the activities they liked, the things they thought a nursery school could do without, and the educational philosophies that resonated with both of them.

In time, with both living in Israel, Rebecca and Gila decided to turn their nursery-school conversations into a brick-and-mortar reality. Rebecca had already spent her first few years in Israel working in a nursery school, called a “gan” (which is also the Hebrew word for garden). Rebecca’s boss was very supportive of her starting her own gan, and, after a five-hour conversation with Gila, Gan Shelanu (“Our Gan”) was born in 2011.

Gan Shelanu is a two-year program that covers ages 18 months to about 3 years and emphasizes educational and social-learning experiences. 

Some of the education is informal: The children have opportunities to learn such things as how to be friends, climb and do puzzles. And some of the learning is more formal – for instance, in the summer session, the 3-year-olds learn about famous artists and impressionism. They come home talking about Monet and Jackson Pollock!

And since both of the school's founders are American, there is also an American element to the English-speaking gan. Things Rebecca and Gila grew up with, like Thanksgiving and the special foods that come with it, are incorporated into the curriculum. They even teach the kids about the Super Bowl, explaining how American football is played and preparing foods like sliders on Super Bowl Sunday.

When it comes to the World Series, Gila and Rebecca have an agreement that, if the Red Sox are playing, Rebecca can stay up late to watch and Gila will cover Rebecca’s next shift.

Families that have a New England connection send their kids to gan wearing Red Sox or New England Patriots shirts on these “festive” days.

I’m fortunate that my home in Jerusalem is just a few buildings from Gan Shelanu. This means I get gan Thanksgiving and Super Bowl Sunday food! And each year Rebecca brings the children to my garden to harvest my pomegranate tree, and I come home to find a thank-you sign on my front door with little painted handprints on it.

Eventually, the children move on to Hebrew-speaking schools, where they’ll be fully immersed in Israeli educational culture. But, thanks to Rebecca and Gila’s initiatives, these children’s first educational experience has an American (and New England) twist.

DANIEL STIEGLITZ (dstieglitz@gmail.com) lives in Jerusalem, where he works as a life coach. His collection of short stories, “Tavern of the Mind,” is available for paperback and Kindle purchase on Amazon at www.amzn.to/2Izssrz.