Grandma's Stories: Unique program teaches pre-K children over Zoom

The idea was the result of a brainstorming session between the synagogue’s Rabbi Gustavo Surazski and student rabbi, Doron Rubin.

SIMCHA COHEN and her pre-kindergarten class. (photo credit: NETZACH ISRAEL)
SIMCHA COHEN and her pre-kindergarten class.
(photo credit: NETZACH ISRAEL)
 In a sea of Ashkelon’s Orthodox synagogues, Kehilat Netzach Israel stands out in many ways, one of which is that it has been the home of “TALI” kindergartens for over 30 years.
The Netzach Israel TALI ganim (kindergartens) start at age three and run through pre-kindergarten, ages four and five, and kindergarten, ages five and six. TALI – the Hebrew acronym for Tigbur Limudei Yehadut, or “augmented Jewish education” – means the kids enjoy a secular curriculum along with Jewish traditions and values, holiday celebrations and special happenings.
One example of the latter is in the pre-kindergarten where there is believed to be a one-of-a-kind project called Sipurei Savta (“Grandma’s Stories”).
The program began in December 2020 as a weekly event before the latest coronavirus lockdown. The idea was the result of a brainstorming session between the synagogue’s Rabbi Gustavo Surazski and student rabbi, Doron Rubin.
RABBI GUSTAVO SURAZSKI (right) and student rabbi Doron Rubin. (Photo credit: Netzach Israel)RABBI GUSTAVO SURAZSKI (right) and student rabbi Doron Rubin. (Photo credit: Netzach Israel)
Rabbi Gustavo explained, “These are crazy times, and one of the many challenges we’re facing here is to continue to build our synagogue during a time when it is dangerous health-wise, and even forbidden to attend our classes and events, let alone prayers. That’s the essence of this project: to bring the younger generation in touch with the older one and give them the chance to listen to stories that their grandmothers might be reading to them had there not been a pandemic.” 
And so, with the help of Doron and Simcha Cohen, the ganenet (teacher) of the pre-kindergarten class of 33 four- and five-year-old children, Sipurei Savta was born.
Each week, a different grandmother joins the children via Zoom and reads a short story of her choice or one that she selects with the help of her grandchildren. The grandmas present the stories in their own style: Some wear costumes, use props, sound effects, dolls and/or puppets. The kids are all delighted and excited, waiting in great anticipation to see whose grandmother will be their reader and what story they will be hearing that day.
The project is a win-win. The grandmothers’ involvement is on a voluntary basis. Several retired teachers jumped at the opportunity, finding it a great way to revisit the classroom and interact with kids whom they miss. Others were reluctant due to their fear of using Zoom, but were promised lessons by Doron. After that is accomplished, he makes sure the computers, cameras and microphones are all in good working order and even does a run-through to make sure everything is glitch-free.
Savta Chaya Brecher was one of those hesitant ones. 
SAVTA CHAYA and Ariel. (Photo credit: Chaya Brecher)SAVTA CHAYA and Ariel. (Photo credit: Chaya Brecher)
“I had no idea how to use Zoom, but with the help of Doron, I’m not afraid of it anymore,” she said. “It’s surprisingly easy and definitely worth the while to see the smile on your grandchild’s face. I’m ready to do it again.”
In preparation for Savta Chaya’s original poem about a seed, Simcha showed the kids a short YouTube video that explained how a seed grows. The next day, the children planted seeds in the nursery school’s backyard. A few days later, Grandma Chaya read her poem. Between lockdowns, the children lovingly watered the seeds and watched them grow, but were very concerned as to what would happen to them when gan was closed. Simcha promised that she would take good care of the seed and periodically sent pictures of what were now flowers so the kids could follow their progress.
For the grandmothers and their grandchildren, especially during lockdown, Israel’s third as of this writing, it is a wonderful chance to see each other, even if only virtually. For “Grandma E” it was a way of working through her loneliness and sadness at not being able to see her family, especially her granddaughter. Having been accustomed to picking her from gan and having lunch with her on a daily basis, separation was particularly hard.
“I CAN’T BEGIN to tell you how rewarding it’s been for me to be a part of this project. It’s been fun looking through stories to choose from, rehearsing ‘the winning story,’ trying out different voices, and then learning Zoom thanks to a very patient Doron. It also seems that I’m surprisingly good at acting in front of a camera, something I’ve never done before. My granddaughter was so excited when she realized it was my turn to read that she could hardly contain her excitement and frankly, neither could I. Sipurei Savta was the perfect prescription to make me feel better. I even signed up for a second turn.”
Grandma Sylvia is a former Londoner whose Hebrew is, as she puts it, “not the best.”
“In the beginning, I was reluctant to get involved, but I really missed my grandson, and that longing took precedence over everything else. I had no idea how to use Zoom, but with Doron’s assistance, I’m now a pro. I also practiced reading the story over and over because I was worried that the kids wouldn’t understand my British-accented Hebrew, and I also needed to be able to read fluently. Surprisingly, I improved my ability to read in Hebrew and the children even understood me,” said Grandma Sylvia with a smile.
One savta has a daughter who is married to a woman, so she chose a story about two moms. She saw it as a good opportunity to recognize her daughter and “go public.” It was also important for her granddaughter to recognize that she’s no “different from any of the other kids in the gan.”
Savta Sheila Spiro is Eitan Azran’s grandmother. Four-and-a-half-year-old Eitan helped his grandmother choose the story she would read. 
“I loved when savta read a story to me and my friends. It was fun and it made me happy.” 
As for Savta Sheila, “This was a joyous experience. My grandchildren are my heart, so when asked to take part in the project, I didn’t think twice. It’s for my grandson, and the children and gave me a chance to see Eitan, albeit from afar. He was just so excited, he couldn’t wait for my turn to read to his friends, and luckily I have experience using Zoom, so that was not a problem.
“The project is very impressive,” Sheila continued. “And when I told my friends about it, none of whom live in Ashkelon, they thought it was a brilliant idea and wanted their grandchildren’s gan to adopt the project as well.”
Simcha explained, “When there was no lockdown and the kids were in gan, we had the sessions at 1 p.m., but during the lockdown, we moved it to 5, anticipating that parents who are working would be home from work and available to enjoy the experience with their child. We also invite all the other grandmas to watch in the hopes it will give them some ideas and inspiration, and even help them get over stage fright. 
“Of course, grandpas are welcome,” Simcha continued. “The session starts with my greetings, a prayer and a song together with the rabbi, and an introdution to the savta and the story. Sometimes, the appearance of the savta is a surprise, at other times, the child knows in advance. But either way, that child is dancing all over, jumping up and down, totally excited and proud. ‘Zot ha’savta sheli!’ (‘That’s my grandma!’).”
The program’s success has exceeded original expectations. Not only are the kids engaged with their grandmothers and enjoy seeing them, especially during the lockdown, but it is, in a sense, a continuation of their heritage in a novel way. The same holds true for their grandmothers, many of whom have gone out of their comfort zone in meeting a meaningful, unique and fun challenge in front of a supportive audience (all the kids clap wildly at the end).
But what if the savta isn’t the best storyteller in the world? 
“So what? Next time, she’ll be better,” says Doron with a smile.
Sipurei Savta has been so successful that it will continue with Simcha as she moves with the kids to kindergarten, and although the kids have returned to gan, the project is moving ahead with grandmothers. And by request from everyone involved, especially the kids, a new program will be added. You guessed it. It’s called “Sipurei Saba”! 
If you are interested in learning more about Sipurei Savta or Sipurei Saba, call Doron Rubin at (052) 609-1687.