New Jersey Jewish News
Adath Israel is dogged in its commitment to youth education
Adath Israel Congregation is going to the dogs. But thats a good thing, according to Sharon Brooks, coordinator of resource center services at the synagogues religious school.
Consider, for example, a recent Sunday morning at the Conservative shul in Lawrenceville. Nicholas, a German shepherd, and Zoë, a golden retriever, were padding around the multipurpose room wearing blue-and-white pouched vests announcing their identities as DALET Dogs Dog-Assisted Literacy Education Teachers.
On every side, the room was jumping with the energies of some 20 first- and second-grade students as they put the finishing touches to plush dogs they had hand-stuffed with padding and prayers for those in need in the community one of several bark mitzva projects to teach them about the Jewish value of tzedaka, or charity. A few steps away, another project, a softbound cookbook titled Kosher Canine Cuisine: Cooking With Zoë, was the featured item in the congregational gift shop.
Even Brooks had gotten into the act. The legend on her sweatshirt, a creative riff on the words of the prophet Micah, said it all: Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your dog.
Brooks said she came up with the idea for the program last year, when Elaine Wiznitzer, one of the resource center teachers, began bringing her dog Nicholas in to interact with some of the centers children with special needs.
I noticed changes with the kids, Brooks said. I had read in a therapy journal about using dogs for literacy. So I put it all together and created a curriculum.
Curriculum in hand, Brooks applied for funding to the Millburn-based Ziv Tzedakah Fund, an initiative begun by poet and charity maven Danny Siegel. Hes very interested in mitzva animals, she explained. The resulting $600 grant made it possible for the resource center to offer the DALET Dogs program to all the children in Adath Israels primary grades this year, including those with special needs. It paid for the pouched vests for Nicholas and Zoë, which contain flash cards, puzzles, and other resources for teaching the alef-bet and Hebrew words and phrases. The grant also partially funded the purchase of materials for the bark mitzva projects.
Wiznitzer said that the presence of the dogs entices the children to use the resource materials, complementing and enriching the lessons they learn in Adath Israels classrooms.
The resource room has become a place where people want to come, she said. We have kids coming for the enrichment program as well as kids who need a little extra help one on one. We have kids who come from other Hebrew schools for a short time to catch up with their grade.
We function as supplemental services more than anything else and, in this case, complemental, Wiznitzer said, indicating the tzedaka project involving the plush dogs. The mitzva of tzedaka is something they learn in the classroom, but what we do here is to create activities that are real and part of our community. The kids are motivated because theyre just crazy about the dogs.
Each bark mitzva lesson is an opportunity to learn a Jewish value, added Judy Nussbaum, another resource center teacher. That morning, for example, in addition to presenting their plush dogs to the Jewish Family and Childrens Service of Greater Mercer County, the children would be preparing bags of cereals, coffee, and jelly to donate to the kosher food pantry at JFCS.
Its a truly incredible opportunity to allow the children in our community to learn the impact of giving back, Nussbaum said. They really are giving of themselves to others, and I think its truly a great opportunity for learning.
Just then, Julie Feibush, a JFCS staffer, arrived to collect the plush dogs, which the agency would be distributing to children and elders in need in the community.
I think this is just a wonderful program and a wonderful way to involve children in the community, said Feibush, who coordinates JFCS NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities) program in East Windsor. Its an alternative way of teaching, and its so effective, she said. It really reaches out to the kids and lets kids reach out to the community. JFCS is honored to be part of it.
The educational impact of the initiative is immeasurable especially for children with learning differences, said Hedda Morton, Adath Israels educational director.
I think its great, Morton said. The children become very engaged with the animals. It sparks their interest, and theyre drawn to the Hebrew through the dogs. Its very engaging for children with learning differences. It gives them a comfort level that enables them to proceed with their studies in Hebrew much more easily.
Weve very lucky to have Sharon Brooks here, she added. It took tremendous energy and creative insight to generate this kind of project.
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