‘A small role can be big!” says Elmo, in Hebrew, giggling gleefully in his
characteristically high-pitched squeal, over his role as a tree in the Rehov
Sumsum (Israel’s Sesame Street) play, no longer jealous of Avigail (Guni Paz)
for winning the part of the dragon. The furry red muppet is shooting a scene
beside Uncle Shmuel (Shmuel Vilozny) for the fourth season of Rehov Sumsum, with
the HOP! Channel, airing in April.
Ariel Doron, the puppeteer behind
Elmo, and HOP! are sure the character, one of the world’s most popular muppets,
will be a hit among three-to six-year-old Israeli viewers.
seemingly innate affinity for the character,” says Danny Labin, the chief
operating officer of the HOP! Group, which partners with Sesame Workshop, the
non-profit organization behind Sesame Streets
the world over. He says in adding
Elmo, a bona fide star with a track record, HOP! hopes to ensure the show’s
success and raise its educational impact.
In addition to Elmo, executives
are increasing the show’s presence in the classroom, in the home and online, and
creating workshops and content to follow episodes in Hebrew and Arabic. The aim
is to allow viewers to form a more personal connection with the characters, and
for the show’s timeless messages to reach more than just the 1.6 million
households that receive the HOP! channel.Rehov Sumsum
first aired in
Israel from 1983-1986 on the country’s educational channel, run by the Education
Ministry. Due to inconsistent public funding, however, the show has run on and
off, but has found a home with HOP! since 2006.Sesame Street
focused on socio-emotional skill building, diversity appreciation in a rapidly
changing multicultural society, and building critical thinking skills since it
debuted in the US in 1969, but as it has in other countries, Rehov Sumsum
to the Israeli landscape.
Some of this season’s themes were spurred by
the recent social justice protests that broke out last summer and issues of
equality, individual rights and identity that children have been exposed to on
the news and from walking by the tents.
“These are questions that even a
three- or four-year-old child in Israel has,” Labin says.
political, Sesame Street
aims to instill values that all parents can agree on,
he says, like waiting your turn and not pushing in front of others.
another episode, Sivan (Efrat Gonen), a threeyear- old, wheelchair-bound muppet,
wins first place in the Sesame Street Olympics. Her muppet friends build Sivan,
who joined the cast in 2009, a ramp to the stage so she can accept her award.
The theme of fairness as it relates to time, resources and attention is explored
Within the educational system, the network is partnering
with Beit Issie Shapiro, a nonprofit based in Ra’anana that promotes inclusion
of the disabled, on distributing kits on disability awareness into
Diversity appreciation is illustrated this season with
live-action segments documenting the lives of Israeli children, including a
Darfurian girl who studies at the Bialik Rogozi school, a boy who loves to dance
and whose parents are Georgian, religious children, Arab and Ethiopian children,
and a child who lives on an organic moshav.
“The pieces with real
children are really, really important because this is how children get to meet
other children in Israel, especially in a time when children will not come into
contact with children that are different from themselves,” says Shira Ackerman
Simchovitch, the educational content and outreach director for Rehov
Mahboub, an Arab-Israeli muppet whose role is expanded this
season, is an especially important member of the show in promoting this goal. He
teaches Arabic words, games and songs and shares Arab cultural traditions, and
became the first Arab- Israeli character on an Israeli children’s television
show in 2009. Mahboub has a goofy blue face, shaggy, colorful hair and
“He is defined as the Arab puppet, but he’s not only Arab, he’s
much more,” says Mahboub’s puppeteer Yousef Sweid, who stars in The Bubble
Walk on Water.
“He is curious about everything,” Sweid says, adding that
most importantly, he’s just one of the other kids, a loveable part of the
neighborhood, and adored by Jewish viewers. “You forget that he’s
The approachable muppet is meant to introduce Jewish- Israeli
children to Arab-Israelis, Labin says, humanizing, or “muppetizing” Arabs, but
also serves as a positive role model for Arab children to see themselves
represented on TV.
“[The muppets] have this innocence,” Sweid says, “they
don’t care, and as a puppeteer I don’t care, [that] there are problems in the
world. ...He’s just a child who wants to play and have fun. It’s like the hard
outside world is not there. Maybe it is there but we have our own
Ackerman Simchovitch says the network is working to expand its
reach to all Israelis, especially Arab-Israelis, via a multimedia,
Many Arab-Israeli homes don’t use the HOT or Yes
providers, says Ackerman Simchovitch, but this doesn’t mean these children will
miss out on Rehov Sumsum.
Arab-Israelis are more likely connected to
Egyptian or Jordanian networks, and so activities on the web site, Rehov Sumsum
DVDs given for free to Arab pre-schools and kindergartens, and outreach into the
classrooms are key to reaching this population of children. Last season a
special 45-minute DVD in Arabic, not dubbed over, was distributed to every Arab
early childhood educator in the country through the Education Ministry, says
“We’re also actively seeking partners that can work
on this particular issue,” she says. “But we work hard to find the ways to get
it into the hands of Arab teachers and Arab families.”
Simchovitch says Arab-Israeli children will also be reached through the
network’s partnership with the Merchavim Institution for the Advancement of
Shared Citizenship in Israel. The “Let’s play on Sesame Street,” project, funded
by the US state department and piloted successfully in 2007-09, offers teachers
training in the “shared citizenship model,” and provides Rehov Sumsum episodes
and follow-up activities parents and educators can do with their children. The
family kit features older episodes and episodes from the new season. The
kits are available in Hebrew and Arabic.
Ackerman Simchovitch says she
aims for “Let’s play on Sesame Street” training to reach 1,200 teachers over the
next three years. With the average number of children in an early childhood
classroom being 35, the math works out to 42,000 children receiving the
“The Merchavim project cuts across all the populations and
the teachers who participate and the children represent the diverse range of
populations in Israel,” says Ackerman Simchovitch.
AN AMBITIOUS at-home
project with Israel’s branch of the HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents and
Preschool Youngsters) International network, Haetgar (“The Challenge”), brings
content into the home via instructors meeting with parents on
preparing children for school readiness. The curriculum includes episodes and
suggested activities for parents to mediate with their children what was seen on
screen. The project also gives parents tools to supervise their children’s media
consumption and use TV as a trigger to explore social and emotional
HIPPY, developed at the Hebrew University Center for Innovation
in Education, has been replicated in 12 countries, including South Africa,
Germany and Australia. Rehov Sumsum
and Haetgar aim for the new
curricular model to be adapted to HIPPY communities around the world.
show is becoming a “360-degree wrap-around project,” says Ackerman Simchovitch,
surrounding children from all angles – at home, school and online.
advice for parents and educational content for teachers on HOP!’s web site are
featured in Arabic and Hebrew (the first Israeli children’s web site to do
so). Teachers and families will also be able to submit content on the
site. According to Ackerman Simchovitch, the HOP! site receives 500-800 users
On the small screen, the show aims for this season to be more
reflective of the inner world of children. Lovers of previous seasons will
notice the absence of Kippi, the iconic porcupine, the presence of only one
reoccurring adult actor, and a set that features a playhouse, swings, a park and
a sandbox, diverging from the traditional street scene.
decided, let’s focus on the kids in order to bring a stronger emotional
connection between the viewer and the stars,” Labin says.
Workshop decided to work with HOP! on a curriculum based on equality and
fairness, Labin says, and “there was something very disproportionate about this
huge, cowering figure,” of Kippi vis-a-vis the other muppets, who by in large
are pre-school age. The removal of Kippi was also necessary to make way for new
characters for a new generation of viewers, with different needs. The “older and
timeless” Moshe Oofnik (Gilles Ben-David), however, Oscar the Grouch’s Israeli
cousin, hasn’t gone anywhere.
Instead of being a street filled with adult
characters and commotion, the set intentionally feels quieter and more private,
so scenes can focus more on peer-group relationships and teach the lessons of
how children can solve conflicts peacefully, how children can express their
needs and recognize the needs of others.
“[The set] is much more of an
inward manifestation of the child’s world,” Labin says.
Adult fans of the
show can look forward to several celebrity guest stars this season, including
singer/songwriters Chava Alberstein, Avraham Tal and Karolina.
important to remember the show is speaking to a very young audience, says
“Our work in each season is to sort of shine a
spotlight on a component or a concept that translates those very big ideas into
something much, much smaller that can be made visible and comprehensible to the
young viewer,” she says, adding that even babies will absorb something by
“We’re going to have to wait until they’re a little older to
understand what is they’re taking away.”