The longest street in the world

Gary Knell, CEO of the Sesame Workshop, arrives in Israel to offer kindergartners the gift of tolerance.

sesame street 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
sesame street 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Jerusalem YMCA was perhaps the perfect setting for Sunday's gathering of Education Minister Dr. Yuli Tamir, Alona Apt from the children's channel Hop!, and Gary Knell, the president and CEO of Sesame Workshop, to announce the large-scale donation of Education Enrichment Kits to Jewish and Arab kindergartens all over Israel. The mixed classroom at the Y was the perfect setting for the event, as the Jerusalem kindergarten welcomes children of every faith and culture and compels children to participate in the traditions of others. Both Hebrew and Arabic are spoken in the school, with the Jewish children addressed in Arabic and the Arabs taught in Hebrew. This unusual practice is intended to dissolve the dividing line between "them and us," and the Sesame Workshop's Education Enrichment Kits are designed to promote the very same message. As part of his regional tour, Knell, whose company produces Sesame Street and owns its affiliates all over the world, also met with leaders in Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. "Sesame Street is now the longest street in the world," Knell told The Jerusalem Post. He noted that the show has won more Emmy Awards than any TV show in history, in part because it is not a show that simply "drops down on a culture" or country without any regard to its sensitivities. On the contrary, each country's version of Sesame Street is "completely localized" with "a local curriculum focused on local needs." The Sesame Workshop conscientiously consults with a team of curriculum developers, teachers, and early childhood specialists in each region to determine the community's needs. In South Africa, a character infected with the AIDS virus teaches children that hugging, playing, and maintaining friendship with infected children is safe and not as scary as many people would have them think. In a society where 1 in 9 children is infected with either HIV or AIDS, the show sends a very definite message. As the number one children's show in Egypt, Al-am Simsim teaches children, and specifically girls, that education is important. Their star Muppet, KhoKha, teaches girls that they can have a career as well as a family. This emphasis on education is crucial in a country where 43% of the population is illiterate, and 60% of the population women. Hikkayat Simsim in Jordan focuses on an issue which is entirely different but of extreme importance to its region: health, hygiene, and literacy. Children all over the country watch Tonton and Joljol learn the importance of brushing their teeth, bathing properly, and learning to read. Sesame Workshop's efforts within Gaza are especially moving. Within their often chaotic and violent borders, Palestinian children are able each week to watch a show that teaches the importance of self-esteem and feeling good about oneself. The show gears itself more toward boys, but as Knell puts it, "You can't feel good about somebody else if you don't feel good about yourself first." Unfortunately for Israel's Rehov Sumsum, a lack of funds shut down a fun and educational program for almost 10 years. Remakes and spin-offs existed, but were not advanced enough for the fickle entertainment taste of today's Israeli children. Now, however, the minds behind the Sesame Workshop and Hop! have brainstormed to reinvent the program. The show's new message is one of tolerance and cooperation with friends and neighbors of all cultures. During its debut during Hanukka in 2006, Rehov Sumsum introduced new, more pertinent characters in a setting that is much more conducive to cultural understanding and acceptance. The show juxtaposes religious and non-religious Jews in a Sesame Street -like neighborhood, including everyone's old favorite, Moishe Ufnik. New characters include Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, some new "Israeli" Muppets named Brosh, Noah, and Abigail, and the newest addition, Mahboub, the first-ever Israeli Arab Muppet. The launching of this updated classic brings a whole new message to Israeli youth. Hopefully, by being a part of the legacy of "the longest street in the world," children will realize that it is actually a very small world after all.