‘Rehov’ away from home

With a few character change-ups and a new multimedia campaign, Israel’s ‘Sesame Street’ looks to broaden reach.

Rehov Sumsum 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Tzachi Slinker)
Rehov Sumsum 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Tzachi Slinker)
‘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.
“There’s this 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 has always 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 adapts 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.
Without getting 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.
In 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 this season.
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 classrooms.
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 Sumsum.
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 glasses.
“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 and 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 different.”
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 world.”
Ackerman Simchovitch says the network is working to expand its reach to all Israelis, especially Arab-Israelis, via a multimedia, multi-platform campaign.
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 Ackerman Simchovitch.
“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.”
Ackerman 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 curriculum.
“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 Rehov Sumsum 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 issues.
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.
The show is becoming a “360-degree wrap-around project,” says Ackerman Simchovitch, surrounding children from all angles – at home, school and online.
Games, 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 per month.
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.
“We really decided, let’s focus on the kids in order to bring a stronger emotional connection between the viewer and the stars,” Labin says.
When Sesame 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.
But it’s important to remember the show is speaking to a very young audience, says Ackerman Simchovitch.
“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 watching it.
“We’re going to have to wait until they’re a little older to understand what is they’re taking away.”