NEW YORK — After finishing her military service, Israeli Yehudit Feinstein-Mentesh moved to New York City 14 years ago to study. Once there she met her husband and settled down. But it wasn’t until her twin boys were born that she suddenly she felt a bit adrift.
Yet, rather than mope she decided to eat, play and sing.
That’s the mantra for KesheTOT an after-school community educational program, which just opened at Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn Heights. Part of the Israeli American Council-Keshet bilingual program for young families, KesheTOT came about because of Feinstein-Mentesh’s growing frustration.
“I started KesheTOT because I had nowhere to take my boys. I was desperate. You make friends very quickly in Israel; here it was very difficult,” said Feinstein-Mentesh, now Regional Director, NY for the IAC. “I wanted to get people interested and excited about Jewish culture.”
In one sense KesheTOT is more than an after school program. It’s a way for Israelis living in the Big Apple to give their children a taste of their own childhood.
It’s difficult to get a precise fix on the number of Israelis living in New York City. The Israeli consulate estimates between 180,000 and 200,000, however, the UJA-Federation of New York puts the number at around 40,000.
No matter the number, many Israelis living abroad want their children, or grandchildren, to experience Israeli culture.
“It’s really an Israeli-based program like what we grew up with in Israel,” Sharon Avon said. “It’s culture, it’s art, it’s tradition in a non-religious way.”
Avon moved to New York City 15 years go, and now lives in Carroll Gardens. She and her husband, who is also Israeli, speak Hebrew with their two children, aged 8 and 5. But lately the two children prefer to speak English with each other. Avon wanted a program that celebrated Hebrew and Israeli culture.
KesheTOT is one more avenue in which IAC-Keshet is trying to reach out to Israeli-American and American-Jewish communities across the United States. Other programs include Shishi Israeli Shabbat, which allows Israelis and Jewish Americans to share an evening of song and discussion, as well as celebrations to mark Israel’s independence and networking events for young Israeli and American-Jewish professionals.
“The IAC-Keshet programs serve as a platform to engage and educate the next generation of Israeli Americans, and KesheTOT is an exciting way to instill a knowledge and love of Hebrew language and Israeli identity early in these children’s lives,” Gil Galanos, IAC New York regional chairman, said in a press release.
Aside from the after school program, Avon and other mothers use Hebrew language books, DVDs and music to supplement the program. Yearly visits to Israel also help keep the language fresh, she said.
“That exposure to the language helps a lot too,” Avon said.
Though the songs are exclusively in Hebrew, non-Hebrew speakers won’t feel out of place, Feinstein-Mentesh said. Instruction is in English and there is plenty of call and response for everyone to feel welcome.
The children are greeted in Hebrew, sing Hebrew songs and have snack time and play time. The Israeli teachers gear everything toward bringing a little bit of Israel to Brooklyn.
“We wanted to have that ‘you’re taking a flight to Israel feeling,’” she said. Of course the idea is that parents don’t take flight, and remain and interact during the program. “It’s not a drop off program, the point is not just for kids to connect, but the grown ups too.”
That connection is what drew Adi Amit-Brosh to the program after her oldest was born.
‘We felt like we needed some of the childhood we had and to connect with other Israeli families’
“We really like that there are other Israeli families here. We felt like we needed some of the childhood we had and to connect with other Israeli families,” said Amit-Brosh who has two children. The youngest, aged 2-and-a-half attends KesheTOT and the older, aged 4-and-a-half, goes to a regular Keshet program.
Amit-Brosh came to New York City 16 years ago to study film at New York University’s School of Visual Arts. After she met her husband, who was here on a Ph.D. program at Columbia University, they decided to stay in the US and now live in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn.
She and her husband felt so strongly about the program they initially drove the 45 minutes from Harlem to Brooklyn.
“It gives us that flavor of Israel,” she said of KesheTOT.