By Ellen Walters, Director, Learning Initiatives in Early Childhood Education

Ellen WaltersI was fortunate to attend the newCAJE conference in Naperville, Illinois, through the generosity of the PJ Library program. Twenty participants in PJ Goes to School K-2 spent each day learning together with Lisa Litman, National Director of PJ Goes to School, and the talented Bible Players.

PJ Goes to School K-2 is a pilot program that is currently in six schools in the Greater Philadelphia area. The program is designed to “enrich and extend the curriculum, strengthen bonds between home and school, and spark meaningful Jewish conversations in class and at home.” The conference allowed me to learn with colleagues in the Philadelphia area as well as representatives from communities across America.

Each year, PJ Goes to School has a theme. The theme of this year will be “Heroes,” and each of us was asked to bring a picture, quote, or information about a hero/heroine of our choice. A clothesline was used to display the submissions and participants could add new thoughts each day. We had spirited conversations about Bible heroes, famous thinkers, and local heroes in the context of Jewish learning and identity.

One session taught ways to act out a Biblical paragraph silently, how to help children identify true Super Heroes, and activities that ensured that no one would be left out. Two of this year’s stories stand out for me. The tale “Nachshon, Who Was Afraid to Swim” is a midrash about the first person to put his feet in the water when the Israelites were waiting to cross the Red Sea. As a small group we condensed the story and then acted it out to make the meaning clear. A second story read was “Zishe the Strongman,” a story about a man with great strength who is also good and kind. These books and two others will be the foundation for the program for this coming year.

In addition to the PJ Goes to School sessions, I also spent time learning about new approaches to art projects, lesson plans, and activities for the Tishri holidays. Linda Sonin (from led a session with many hands-on activities that are easy to replicate in the classroom, such as making honey spoons, ushpizin chairs, and holiday bingo cards. I came home with much that I look forward to sharing at a workshop hosted by Jewish Learning Venture on August 30 at Adath Jeshrun for ECE (early childhood education) and early primary level teachers.

Another session, “Incorporating Jewish Ethical Values in the Early Childhood Classroom,” was led by Rena Rotenberg, author of Torah Talk and Lively Legends. Those books have been used for many years to help teachers incorporate Torah stories in developmentally appropriate ways and to connect children with legends of the past in teaching Jewish values.

Attending newCAJE was a wonderful learning experience and I highly value the time spent with both local colleagues and teachers and directors from many parts of the country.