The Afikim program will provide Hebrew-immersion afterschool care for kindergarten and first-grade students
By ERIN ELLIOTT BRYAN / Community News Editor
Prior to joining Beth Jacob Congregation as assistant rabbi, Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman was involved in conversations regarding a Hebrew-immersion program in suburban Boston. When she returned to her native Minnesota last October, she thought that the information she had gathered would be helpful in starting a similar program in the Twin Cities.
“We’re seeing across the country, unfortunately, that day school is reaching a smaller and smaller percentage of our kids, and there are families who want more engaged learning than what they get in a two-day-a-week model, but haven’t wanted to commit to send their kids to day school,” Kippley-Ogman said. “I think two-day-a-week religious schools often do provide excellent Jewish education, but [the parents] were talking about the level of Jewish education that brings kids to be fluent in Hebrew and fluent in the texts of the tradition.”
Kippley-Ogman is spearheading the new Afikim program, Hebrew-immersion afterschool care for kids in kindergarten and first grade that will launch this fall. The independent program, with its own director, will be based at the St. Paul JCC and is offered through a partnership with the Talmud Torah of St. Paul and the support of local congregations.
The program will provide afterschool care that immerses young children in the Hebrew language, Jewish learning and a Jewish environment, and fills a need for families who require childcare and enriching that time with “serious Jewish content.”
Afikim is part of the Nitzan Network, joining seven other similar afterschool programs around the country, which Kippley-Ogman sees as a bridge between the two-day-a-week religious school and day school.
“In St. Paul right now, kids who are in kindergarten and first grade, there isn’t a Hebrew learning option for them, other than the day school. Each of the synagogues has some programming for kids that age, but the Hebrew teaching programs begin in the second grade, and then I think they mostly begin at one day a week,” Kippley-Ogman said. “Families are saying, ‘I want to send my kid to public school’ or ‘There’s a specific school that I want to send my kid to, but I want an opportunity for my kids to be seriously Jewishly engaged.’”
The Afikim teacher will speak only in Hebrew, and the goal is for kids to absorb the language through the environment, though there will be some time devoted to traditional Hebrew language learning.
“What we know from neurological research is that the earlier you learn a language, the easier it is to grasp it,” she said. “So using a language immersion model with kids in kindergarten and first grade will actually be a very effective way of bringing them into Hebrew as a language in a way that they’ll be able to build on that throughout their Jewish lives.”
The program is flexible for families, who can choose from a two-day option or a three- to five-day option, and transportation will be provided from schools to the St. Paul JCC. Afikim will also feature music and arts to enhance the core curriculum, and kids will be able to use the JCC facilities for such activities as swimming or music lessons.
Kippley-Ogman thinks that the program can be a good fit for many different segments of the local Jewish community — from families whose only Jewish involvement is in coming to shul on Shabbat to secular Israeli families who want their children to be in a Hebrew-speaking environment.
“Different constituencies with somewhat different needs could actually come together around something that could really bring a new model of Jewish education to the St. Paul Jewish community and be part of bringing new energy,” Kippley-Ogman said. “This is building on the engaged learning models that we know about to make this a place where kids really want to be after school.”
For parent Karen Shapiro, the idea of a Hebrew-immersion program seemed like a perfect fit for her daughter, Maya, who will be entering first grade. (Her son, Ari, will be entering third grade and will be attending the afternoon school at the Talmud Torah of St. Paul.)
“I grew up multilingual and always wanted to raise my children speaking Hebrew and English. Because my husband is primarily an English speaker, and for a few other reasons, it’s been harder than I anticipated, so I’m delighted that they got the chance to be in a Hebrew immersion environment that I can then support at home,” said Shapiro, who is a member of Beth Jacob. “I want Maya to begin building her Hebrew vocabulary, to understand more of what her grandparents and I say to her in Hebrew, to love the language, and to make close ties with a community of Jewish kids her age.”
Shapiro sees the program as a way for the next generation of Jews to deepen their love of Hebrew and their connection with Israel and the community, and to put Jewish traditions into a more modern context.
“I love Rabbi Emma’s vision,” Shapiro said. “It sounds like a loving, organized but flexible environment… and a group of committed, dedicated and kind families, so what more could you want?”
Afikim will be coordinated by a community advisory board, and the Talmud Torah of St. Paul will oversee the curriculum. The program is funded in part by the Jewish Federation of Greater St. Paul and scholarships may be available for some families.
Kippley-Ogman also hopes to work with local rabbis, who can have a presence in the program as well.
“My hope is that the kids who are part of it find it to be an inspiring learning environment… and that the community starts to see this as an important model of Jewish education and a potential contributor to the real strength of the community,” Kippley-Ogman said. “If we have kids who are going to be fluent in Hebrew, how do we look to those kids as a resource?… How do we take advantage, as synagogue communities, of the kind of education we can do on a communal scale?”
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