By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Students in the Schenectady Jewish Community Center’s after-school program recently saw pictures and heard stories that showed them it’s possible to touch a far-away place without ever leaving home.
After spending hours learning about Israel, the children, who are in kindergarten through eighth grade, made a banner to send to a school in the Eshkol region of that country. They also wrote notes to be placed in the historic Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, the ancient structure toward which Jews traditionally face during prayer.
Judy Ben-Ami, the Jewish cultural and adult programming director at the JCC, traveled to Israel in February and brought the students’ creations along with her.
“They were very excited to be able to write their own wishes and have someone deliver them to Israel,” Ben-Ami said.
Sara Dewitt, director of the after-school program, said Ben-Ami’s trip was the culmination of a lesson plan that walks a careful line with the diverse group of students, many of whom do not practice the Jewish faith.
“Most of the children aren’t Jewish. I’m personally not Jewish,” Dewitt said. “We want to embrace the Jewish culture but also be respectful of the children coming from different backgrounds.”
Dewitt customizes the children’s learning by making secular comparisons all can feel comfortable with.
“Prayers can be somewhat similar to a wish,” she said. “Whatever they would like to call it.”
The kids also learn about mitzvah, which is a Hebrew word that literally means “commandment” but often signifies an act of kindness. The kids talk about doing nice things for others, like treating their parents kindly or holding doors open for one another.
“We try to encourage Jewish value at the JCC, which are really general values for every person in the world,” Ben-Ami said. “To be kind to each other, to share, to be thankful, to be respectful — things that are really wide in their acceptance for every kid and every person.”
About 80 children gathered March 27 to hear Ben-Ami talk about her trip, and to look at the photos of people in Israel accepting their colorful banner.
It was more than just a show-and-tell experience. Dewitt and Ben-Ami hoped the students would connect with people in other parts of the world while learning about topics such as diversity, history and geography. “It’s a really neat program,” Ben-Ami said. “It’s really wide in what they learn and what they experience.”