The students at Kiryat Yearim Elementary School in Ramat Hasharon sat through their first period classes oblivious to the flurry of preparation going on in the miklat beneath their school yard. Eleven women were dashing here and there as they donned costumes, reviewed lines and transformed the miklat into a mini theater. The arrival of the Shvil HaTanach, or Paths of Tanach Program was announced by a colorful banner hanging in the school yard. Aside from the banner, there was nothing else in this Israeli elementary school that bespoke Torah. The school mission statement was inscribed impressively on a mural backdrop of smiling children wearing no kippot. The display in the lobby welcomed Spring but made no mention of Pesach. And this is precisely why Lev Yehudi was bringing Shvil HaTanach to this particular school.
Lev Yehudi is a project of OU Israel which operates in secular neighborhoods in the Tel Aviv area. Its mission is to bridge the gaps between the religious and secular populations and introduce Torah values to the neighborhoods and their schools. The program provides training and support for groups of religious Israelis who move to the region. Each group, known as a Garin Torani, makes Torah accessible in otherwise secular, non-religious neighborhoods. One of Lev Yehudi’s pilot programs is Shvil HaTanach in which members of the Ramat Hasharon garin go into the schools and bring Tanach to life for students who have had little or no positive exposure to Tanach in the past.
The stage for Shvil HaTanah was set. As the children entered the transformed miklat, their eyes widened. The walls were draped in color, the floor was carpeted in Persian style rugs, and the room was divided into four sections, each with a mini set. A Tanach personality in full regalia led the group in a workshop about the personality’s story and the value he or she espoused. King Solomon presided in purple robes on a red velvet throne, the Beit Hamikdash in full view through the window – some of the children literally jumped when they heard the trumpets heralding the king’s arrival. After King Solomon, the children were swept into a yellow whirlwind of desert sand to visit Avraham Avinu’s tent, the door open wide to reveal a meal prepared for guests. They listened to Avraham tell his story and were witness as he confronted God and begged mercy for the people of Sdom. Rachel Imenu held the children spellbound in her wedding gown and veil, large gold hoops hanging from her ears. She displayed her “wedding album” and explained how she gave Yaakov’s signs to her sister, giving up on her longed for wedding day. Finally, the students were introduced to the models of humbleness and peace, Moshe and Aharon, who told their story as they stood before Har Sinai.
The children listened to the stories, watched the scenes and participated in learning games. Across the board, their reaction to the workshop was “Kef! Fun!” But the day was more than just kef for them, it was a bridge to the world of Torah. As Rabbi Avi Berman, the director of OU Israel, observed, “For these children, Avraham Avinu is no longer ‘that guy who wanted to kill his son.’ Now he’s ‘the father of the Jewish People who always made sure to look out for others.’” There was one student who looked at Aharon, resplendent in his clothes as a Kohen Gadol, pointed to the choshen and said, “Hey, we have a keychain like that in our house.” Aharon explained to him what the choshen was about. For that young man, the choshen now has value and meaning as a spiritual symbol. Alex and her friend walked out of Rachel Imenu’s performance enthralled by her beauty and grace, and coupled with their impression is the lesson of what Rachel did and how she gave up on something she wanted in order to protect another from shame.
As Shvil HaTanach co-director Na’ama explained, “We try to connect each story with a value, something that the children can relate to. Shvil HaTanach is designed to bring Tanach alive so that the children will feel a connection to it; so they won’t see it as just another subject, more tests and more homework.” Wearing a headscarf and long skirt, a sight the children in Ramat HaSharon don’t see every day, Na’ama greeted the children with her warm smile and large, sparkling eyes. Tanach is the only Torah subject that these children learn in school, Na’ama explained, and they only learn it because it is part of the Ministry of Education curriculum. Even the teachers often see the Torah subject as a burden, and some go so far as to teach it as mere stories, asserting to their students that the narratives in Tanach are untrue.
Indeed, some of the students entered the program with a smirk on their faces, ready to rebut anything the actresses had to say. “It’s just a movie,” was one group’s reaction to a clip of the splitting of the Yam Suf, “it didn’t really happen.” Some of them didn’t know that Avraham was the father of the Jewish people. But, by the time they participated in all four sessions, the mockery fell away and the children were riveted. Din, a third grader with large eyes, hung back as his friends ran out to recess. He asked for help to finish the Torah riddles handed out by the Shvil HaTanach staff. “My favorite character was Shlomo HaMelech,” he admitted, “I never learned that story before. He was really smart and I like how he was fair.” Liron, a fifth grader, admitted that she was impressed by Avraham Avinu, “how he tried to help everyone and even prayed for Sdom.”
Shvil HaTanach is only one part of Lev Yehudi’s targeted educational program which begins in the schools and filters to the adult generation. Teachers sit in on workshops with their students and children bring their experience home to their parents. In addition to Shvil HaTanach, Lev Yehudi runs school programs before the Jewish holidays and organizes an annual trip to Jerusalem to ensure that every non- religious child in Ramat HaSharon visits the Kotel. “When they stand in the Kotel tunnels, across from the Kodesh HaKodashim, they don’t know what to do,” Rabbi Berman shares. “They start to cry, they simply have no way to relate to God and prayer. We tell them to pray for Gilad Shalit, because that they can relate to.” And that is Lev Yehudi’s mission, to give secular families a way to relate. It gives them a starting point, a kind of Torah compass, so they can work out how Torah fits in with the rest of their lives.