When “the plane” touched down, about 350 students from Perelman Jewish Day School’s (PJDS) campuses in Wynnewood and Melrose Park started cheering and singing “Shehecheyanu.”
On April 19, PJDS arranged a virtual flight to Israel for its junior kindergarten to fifth-grade students. The full day of activities, put on to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, included singing and a dance festival, as well as samples of some activities students might do on a trip to the Jewish state.
“People have not been to Israel,” Stern Center Principal Wendy Smith said. “Kids have not been there. It gives you that taste … and it makes the day so very different for the kids. Our school prides itself on experiential learning, and this is experiential.”
Every year, PJDS plans different programming for Yom Ha’atzmaut. Because this was Israel’s 70th birthday, the school wanted to make this year’s celebration particularly special with a virtual flight to the country.
PJDS put on virtual trip a few years ago, Smith said, and wanted to do it again. Faculty, parents and even some students helped plan and set up the programming. Smith said she hopes the activities deepen the students’ love for Israel.
The event was set to begin at 9:30 a.m., but because of a late arrival of PJDS students from the Forman Center — which Head of School Judy Groner referred to as a “delayed flight” — the program started closer to 10 a.m. While they waited, students and teachers danced along to contemporary Israeli music.
PJDS brings both campuses together for every Independence Day, something they do periodically throughout the year.
“We say, ‘am echad, shir echad,’ one people, one song,” Groner said. “We are really one school. We happen to be on other sides of the river, but this was a wonderful opportunity to celebrate together as the Perelman Jewish community.”
Finally, the bus arrived, and the students sat down, with fake passports, boarding passes and shekels in hand, for the beginning of the day’s programming.
The school played videos — edited by School Rabbi Chaim Galfand — of passengers boarding a plane, a Hebrew-language plane safety demonstration with Hebrew and English subtitles, and of the flight taking off and soaring over the clouds. The school also played a video of different places in Israel like Tel Aviv, Eilat and Jerusalem that included images of natural landscapes, highways, buildings, and people eating and drinking.
The plane then landed to cheers from students, and Groner led them in a “Shehecheyanu” blessing. The students sang “Hatikvah.”
“We try to immerse them in Israeli culture all the time, but today is a day when we really try to take them there and make it as real as we possibly could,” Groner said. “We give them an Israeli experience without actually bringing them there, so 350 of them boarded a plane this morning virtually, and they landed, and they really got into it.”
Learning about Israel is a crucial part of the Perelman curriculum. Students take an Israeli dancing class once a week. The school also has a bilingual curriculum and even, starting at the beginning of this school year, teaches its junior kindergarten class mostly in Hebrew.
“They understand the art, they hear the music, they sing the music to make them feel that Israel is another home for them,” Groner said. “They have a home, not only here in Jewish Philadelphia, but they have a home in Israel as well.”
Yael Smith Posner, a fifth-grade student, has been to Israel once. Her favorite memory is eating falafel from a stand near where she and her family were staying. She said she enjoys going on this virtual trip to Israel rather than having a normal school day.
“America is so old, and Israel is so young,” she said, “even though 70 years, compared to my life, is a ton.”
After the plane landed, the faculty and staff then directed students to sit around the room’s four edges, so each grade could perform a dance in the middle. The students had worked on their dances for several months. Though the the two campuses learned the routines separately, students from the same grade at each center came together for their dances. After each grade had performed, all the students danced together.
Students were then directed to stations across the campus. At each station, they participated in a different activity, such as painting and singing Hebrew songs, a Kotel visit, a Dead Sea spa, a Bedouin tent, a shuk and an Israel Defense Forces obstacle course.
Galfand led the Kotel station. Here, students watched videos about the Kotel at the “visitor’s center” before having the opportunity to put a letter in a mock wall. Galfand said he plans on scanning the letters and sending them to be placed in the actual Kotel in Jerusalem.
“I wanted [the students] to have a sense that its history is much more than a hazy ‘it’s very old,’ and I wanted them to realize the destruction that took place was very significant,” he said. “I also want them to realize its significance to the other religions.”
At the end of the day, the students boarded the plane once again and headed back to real life.
“When they go home, they’re going to talk to their parents about this,” Smith said. “This generates conversation. They’re talking to each other about it. When they talk to each other, converse more, they learn more.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0729