Budget Cuts Impede Survivor Services

Holocaust survivor Jack Rubin: “The only fair … option today is a partnership with the German government.” (Provided)

Holocaust survivor Jack Rubin: “The only fair … option today is a partnership with the German government.”
(Provided)

Government grants and health insurance companies award a bigger share of benefits to senior citizens living in residential facilities, but Holocaust survivors are better off aging in their own homes, according to several people testifying at a two-hour Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing Jan. 15.

The United States, they reasoned, must convince the German government to increase its funding of compensation programs so that survivors can receive in-home services.

“The emotional triggers that can be set off by institutional care can be devastating for them. Things that other residents would likely ignore can take aging Holocaust survivors psychologically and emotionally back to their traumatic youth or childhood,” argued Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the committee’s top Republican. “Confinement in an institutional setting with certain rules, schedules and uniformed staff can literally bring back nightmares. Everyday experiences — showers, doctors, hunger, a lack of privacy — can trigger flashbacks and nightmares.”

Jack Rubin, a survivor of several Nazi concentration and death camps, said the way it is now, many Holocaust survivors are living below the poverty line and can’t afford two hearing aids, let alone someone to come into their house daily.

“The only fair and decent option today is a partnership with the German government,” he testified. “Holocaust survivors are not asking for more money from the taxpayers. U.S. taxpayers are already burdened enough.”

“We are not schnorrers,” he continued. “We are not beggars. What we are asking for is what we deserve.”

Rubin called on the Obama administration and Congress to pressure the German government and corporations that partnered with the Nazi regime to “fulfill their moral obligations to Holocaust survivors today.”

Besides Rubin and Anat Bar-Cohen, a daughter of two survivors, organizational leaders from the Jewish Federations of North America and Selfhelp, a community services group that helps survivors living in New York, testified for the need for increased funding.

Lee Sherman, president and CEO of the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies in Baltimore, testified that the health problems of survivors tend to be greater than those of average senior citizens.

“Some survivors may unsafely attempt to stand or walk without assistance, because during the Holocaust, their strength sustained them, while the sick and the weak were marked for death,” stated Sherman.

Survivors need a multitude of services, he noted, including home health care, home-delivered meals, financial and legal services, transportation, counseling for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and socialization services.

Jewish agencies are able to recognize these needs, even when survivors are too proud to ask for them, continued Sherman. But all these services cost money, and what is provided by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany is not enough.

“Our agencies report that they require an additional $100,000 to $4 million per year to provide for the basic needs of Holocaust survivors,” he said. The request range is so broad, because it was calculated using the least amount each agency needs all the way up to the most each requested.

Sherman urged the senators to reauthorize the Older Americans Act, which includes provisions for Holocaust survivors, and end the sequestration that mandates cuts to social service agencies.

According to the committee, one fourth of the roughly 140,000 survivors in America live at or below the poverty line, with many facing significant health and mental illnesses beyond normal aging due to the malnutrition, lack of medical care, little exercise and sunlight and exposure to severe weather conditions that they experienced during World War II.

“These complex dynamics require a different approach to traditional long-term care models,” acknowledged committee chair Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). “The emphasis on caring for aging survivors must be on creating a safe space surrounded by a trusting caretaker, familiar environment and a basic sense of control over daily life.”

Bar-Cohen, a Bethesda resident, noted that the Jewish Social Service Agency in the Washington metropolitan area “has experienced a 15 percent budget cut for each of the past four years from the Claims Conference and other sources.”

The result is “across-the-board cuts to vital services, placing fragile and impoverished survivors in waiting lists and eliminating social events, transportation and other crucial services,” she testified. “JSSA had projected a shortfall for designated Holocaust survivor services in the D.C. area of $730,000 for 2013 and similar or greater shortfalls for the next 10 years.”

Last month, Vice President Joe Biden announced plans to appoint a special envoy to assist Holocaust survivors living in poverty.

spollak@washingtonjewishweek.com

MLA Members Petition Executive Committee

After approximately four hours of debate during their annual convention this month in Chicago, members of the Modern Language Association’s delegate assembly completed the first stage in enacting a resolution calling on the State Department to chastise Israel for denying entry permits to U.S. academics invited to Palestinian universities in the West Bank.

The resolution now goes to the academic association’s executive committee for review before a full vote by the MLA membership.

The MLA resolution is rooted in, but not directly connected to, language in last month’s American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel that prompted the presidents of more than 100 academic institutions to publish public statements rejecting the boycott and hundreds of individual academics to come out in favor of it.

Sangeeta Ray, professor of English and comparative literature at University of Maryland, College Park and an MLA member since 1987, attended part of the debate that was held the Saturday afternoon of the conference.

“I’ve seen secondhand the harassment my colleagues have been receiving, like hate mail for supporting the boycott,” said Ray. “And the president of Indiana University revoked ASA membership without even talking to the faculty.”

As a result of the alleged harassment claims, a petition urges the MLA executive committee “to issue a statement against acts of retaliation, intimidation [and] coercion aimed at students, faculty [and] academic organizations because of their political opinions and/
or activism.”

Slightly more than 400 MLA members have signed the petition; it requires 500 signatures before the executive committee can consider the motion. David Palumbo-Liu, a comparative literature professor at Stanford University, authored the petition through the online site change.org. An active proponent of the boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, he blogs for The Boston Review, The Huffington Post and Al Jazeera America.

Green Loan Project Makes Sustainability Attainable For Jewish Nonprofits

012414_briefsLocal organizations have benefited substantially from a part of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Sustainability Initiative, reaping thousands of dollars in interest-free loans for greening their facilities.

Administered since 2011 by The Associated and sponsor FJC Security Services, a donor-advised fund in New York, the Green Loan Project is designed to help organizations save energy and reduce their operational costs. To date, Beth Israel Congregation, Talmudical Academy, Torah Institute, the JCC and CHANA have taken advantage of the loans. Originally capped at $100,000, in recent months The Associated was able to secure additional funding to increase the amount available for loans to $300,000.

“The Green Loan Project was an opportunity to take financing off the table for organizations that want to do the right thing for sustainability,” said Mark Smolarz, chief operating and financial officer for The Associated. “It used to be that CFOs didn’t want to be green because of concerns about the other kind of green. But now CFOs want to be green because it is good for the environment and for the bottom line. With financing available at zero percent, it’s really a no-brainer.”

Smolarz reported that most of the organizations that have received loans from the project have used the money to update their lighting systems. Now that more funding is available, Smolarz said that organizations will be able to use the loans to complete more ambitious projects such as updating HVAC systems. “The return on investments from these projects has been less than two years,” said Smolarz. “It’s a super program, and a lot of people are benefiting from it.”

Organizations interested in learning more about the Green Loan Project should contact Aleeza Oshry, manager of the sustainability initiative at 410-843-7423 or aoshry@associated.org.

O’Malley Proposes FY 2015 Budget

Gov. O’Malley (Kirsten Beckerman)

Gov. O’Malley (Kirsten Beckerman)

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley introduced his 2015 budget last week, promising not to raise taxes while trying to close the structural deficit that has plagued the state for almost a decade.

“This fiscally responsible budget builds on the tremendous progress we’ve made as a state, strengthening our economy by supporting 48,000 jobs, protecting our No. 1-in-the-nation schools with record investments in education and upgrading our transportation infrastructure with modern investments,” O’Malley said in a statement.

The 2015 budget also would provide for $4.3 million in new funding to expand pre-kindergarten programs in the state, an initiative the administration has identified as a priority in the 2014 legislative session.

The budget includes $20.3 million earmarked for the state’s correctional facilities, the focus of negative attention after scandal rocked the Baltimore City Detention Center in 2013. Some of that money will go toward 100 additional correctional officers.

Another budget beneficiary is cybersecurity and other tech businesses. If adopted, the Cyber Tax Credit would increase by 33 percent to $4 million. A 12.5 percent increase to the Research and Development Tax Credit brings it to $9 million, and the Biotech Tax Credit will increase by 20 percent to $12 million.

Health continues to be the largest state expenditure, accounting for 28 percent of the state’s spending. Elementary and secondary education receive the second-most assistance, taking up 20 percent of the state’s total expenditures.

At 9 percent and 10 percent respectively, health and transportation expenditures increased the most dramatically between the 2014 and 2015 budgets. The building of the Red and Purple transit lines will demand a $4.4 billion increase in transportation funding over the course of the next six years.

“It’s a continuing socially progressive budget,” said Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, adding that he supports the proposal.

In addition to supporting issues the council backs, such as raising the minimum wage and cracking down on domestic violence and elder abuse, the governor has proposed a budget that also promotes programs important to the Jewish community, such as $1 million in funds for the expansion and renovation of UMD’s Hillel building and $2.5 headed to Sinai Hospital.

“He’s supported our interest in the University of Maryland Hillel, and he’s supporting Sinai Hospital, the first line of defense for certain emergencies,” said Abramson.

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

The Health Exchange Problem

012414_Brown_gansler_brownIn addition to fueling Republican fire, the problems with the launch of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange, Maryland’s Affordable Care Act portal, have also provided ammunition for fellow Democrats looking to defeat Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in June’s gubernatorial primary.

“At this point he’s got to take responsibility,” said Jolene Ivey (D-47), who is running for lieutenant governor on Attorney General Doug Gansler’s 2014 ticket, at a Jan. 13 news conference held at the Gansler-Ivey campaign headquarters in Silver Spring.

Gansler has been at the forefront of the attacks, most recently holding a news conference last week where he and Ivey called on Brown to shoulder the brunt of the blame for the glitch-plagued launch.

Citing a recent Washington Post article that revealed many officials behind the launch were aware that the site might not be capable of handling the opening, Gansler and Ivey criticized the state’s choice of an out-of-state contractor to work on the site. They also called for an account of how the $170 million in additional federal funds were spent, funds that were provided for the state tobecome an early example of success.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Attorney General Doug Gansler, among other candidates, in a June Democratic primary. (Provided)

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and Attorney General Doug Gansler, among other candidates, in a June Democratic primary. (Provided)

“In order to fix the problem, we have to know how this happened,” said Gansler.

Later in the week, Brown testified before the Senate Finance Committee in support of emergency legislation that would provide retroactive coverage to Marylanders who tried but were unable to register for a plan in time to be covered by Jan. 1.

Facing intense questioning from both sides of the aisle, Brown reiterated his statement that he was not aware of any real signs of trouble that would indicate the site was not ready to launch before the Oct. 1 deadline.

“In retrospect, if I knew nine months ago what I’ve learned since the launch, I would have insisted on receiving the underlying documentation that should have [supported] but didn’t support those reports,” he told the committee.

Brown and others involved in the exchange heard from many senators who expressed their disappointment in the Maryland site. From accusations of “malpractice” to labeling the launch a “colossal failure,” the four-hour meet-ing was only the beginning of the legislature’s look into the handling of the launch.

Despite the criticism, Brown has kept health care listed on his campaign website under his “Real Results” tab, where the page says he, along with Gov. Martin O’Malley, “led the nation in implementing the Affordable Care Act.”

Irwin Morris, professor of American politics and chair of the government and politics department at the University of Maryland, said odds are the issue won’t likely dog Brown into June.

“The primary’s a good ways away,” said Morris. “Maintaining an issue like that for that sort of time period is pretty difficult if, as I would expect, the issues related to the rollout and the website become less significant and more people are able to sign up.”

While criticizing the rollout’s technical glitches is fair game for a Democrat in a state as blue as Maryland, putting a lot of effort into using the problems with the launch against Brown probably won’t pay off for any Democratic challengers, he predicted.

“Everyone admits there were issues,” he said. “If you invest a lot in [the Maryland Health Exchange launch] issue, what do you do when, as time goes on, it’s not a significant issue for the public? Do you want to base your campaign on an issue that may be a nonissue when the primaries are actually held?”

Despite the recent criticism, Matthew Crenson, political science professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University, said Brown remains the frontrunner.

“He has all the assets,” said Crenson, noting that in addition to the major endorsements Brown and runningmate Ken Ulman have collected over the past months, the campaign also surpassed the Gansler-Ivey campaign in funding in 2013, with more than $7 million on-hand as of Jan. 8.

Fellow democratic candidate Heather Mizeur, who has been at the center of a lot of health-care reform efforts, is in a good position to criticize Brown and the rollout, said Crenson. However, statements released by her campaign have not directly targeted Brown or anyone else by name but rather focused on the broader issues and fixes.

But regardless of how any contenders use the situation, said Crenson, “if the problems are fixed soon, people will forget.”

Brown will face Gansler, Mizeur, Charles U. Smith and Ralph Jaffe in the June 24 Democratic primary. The general election will take place Nov. 4.

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

Under The Radar In Jewish Baltimore

[slideshow id=”FEINSTEIN”]

“Under The Radar” is an occasional feature that highlights the diverse cross section of Jewish Baltimore.

Dr. Stacey Feinstein says working in an emergency department is fast-paced but requires a “cool head.” (Melissa Gerr)

Dr. Stacey Feinstein says working in an emergency department is fast-paced but requires a “cool head.” (Melissa Gerr)

Less than an hour into her 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift at Medstar Union Memorial Hospital’s emergency department, Dr. Stacey Feinstein saw a young man complaining of chest pains, a middle-aged woman known for continuous drinking and repeated trips to ERs with ensuing health issues and a man suffering from post-surgery complications with a large open chest wound. A Jehovah’s Witness, the patient’s religion does not allow acceptance of blood products, thus preventing him from receiving a needed transfusion when his blood count dropped too low.

A wound VAC, or vacuum-assisted closure, had been installed to aid healing; when his blood count reached an acceptable level, the wound could be closed.

“Taking the gauze away, you could see his heart beating under the muscle,” said Feinstein upon returning from the patient’s room to an area that appeared to be the department’s central nervous system. The large common area, accessible from all directions, was filled with the sounds and activity generated by many computers, phones, doctors, nurses and administrative staff. Clearly a communication hub, doctors there continually input information about patients and discuss situations with other staff.

Typically three doctors treat patients during a shift, along with many nurses and support staff. On this particular day, a red alert signaled there were no available critical care beds or cardiac monitoring devices; patients needing those services were redirected to other facilities.

Even with the incessant sounds of monitors beeping, phones ringing and intercom calls overhead, a sense of calm pervaded the department.

“People have this image that everyone’s running around, people are throwing things, everybody’s sweating and cutting people open,” said Feinstein. “You need cool heads to prevail in the emergency department, because you have to think through things, you have to say, ‘What am I going to do next? What just happened and what do I need to do to fix it? Or, what did I do to change what was going on?’ And so you need to be a more laid-back, calm, cool, collected sort of person.”

Feinstein knew her whole life that she wanted to be a doctor.

“And then as a sophomore in high school I took chemistry and hated it, so at the ripe old age of 15, I decided that I couldn’t be a doctor because I hated chemistry,” she said with a laugh.

Fast forward several years and a string of accomplishments: Feinstein completed an M.B.A. and was in a good sales job. Still, she knew her heart wasn’t in it. Her desire to become a doctor resurfaced. She wasn’t tied down to anyone or anything, so she consulted her sister and her parents and received their support.

“I figured rather than 20 years down the road thinking what if, I’m just going to go ahead and do it,” she said.

She completed the post-baccalaureate chemistry and science courses she skipped the first time around and at age 30 entered medical school in New York; she completed residency and rotations in her native New Jersey. She knew early that she was interested in emergency department work and was drawn to Baltimore to be closer to her sister and other family members. At 39, she got her first job out of medical school at Union Memorial, where she’s been since 2009.

“I just like the pace of it, you’re not treating the same thing day in and day out,” said Feinstein.  “You have to know a little bit about a lot of things. You’re not just treating diabetes, you’re not just treating high blood pressure — you’re not just treating someone’s cardiac problems (for example). When they come into your office you have to treat everything.  I just like the pace of that.”

Dr. Masha Rand has worked with Feinstein for just over two years. She noted it’s not that common to find an atmosphere in medicine that allows the combination of personal female friendship as well as professional collegiality.

“But there are a lot of female physicians here in the ER, so the atmosphere is professional and very female friendly,” said Rand. Regarding working with Feinstein, she said, “I feel comfortable talking to her about my patients and bouncing off those ideas, but we can also talk about babies and hair salons, and it feels really comfortable.”

For Feinstein, difficulty comes in other facets of her job; she’s not only a doctor, but for any given patient she also serves as a kind of investigator/ social worker/secretary. When patients don’t know their medical or surgical history or the medications they’re taking, Feinstein’s job is to find out. The hardest part, though, comes in telling family members that a loved one has died.

Through it all, Feinstein feels she made the right choice in becoming a doctor.

“I love what I do,” she affirmed. “I never wake up and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to work today.’ I’m so glad I did it, that I changed careers, because I did wake up mornings in business saying, ‘Oh, I have to go to work!’”

Feinstein and her husband, Bob Vogelsang, a veterinarian for the military, live in Reisterstown. Their daughter, Hazel Rose, was born in April 2013.

“I think it’s a good role model for her too,” Feinstein said of her daughter, “to see someone who loves their job and doesn’t just do it because they have to.”

mgerr@jewishtimes.com

Bevins To Lead County Council

011714_bevins_cathyBaltimore County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins (D-6) will be the 2014 council chairperson, making her the third female to lead the council.

The council voted unanimously on Monday, Jan. 6 to confirm Bevins as the chair.

“I am humbled by the trust and confidence that my fellow council members have expressed by selecting me to serve as chair,” Bevins said in a statement. “I am honored to serve the wonderful citizens of Baltimore County, and I will do my best to provide meaningful representation and continue the tradition of fiscally responsible oversight in my role as council chair.”

Councilwoman Vicki Almond (D-2) served as chair of the council this term in 2012. The first female chair was former Councilwoman Barbara Bachur in 1983.

Bevins, a Democrat who lives in Oliver Beach, previously worked as former County Executive Jim Smith’s constituent services coordinator for the county’s East side. She represents the county on the legislative committee of the Maryland Association of Counties.

She replaces Councilman Tom Quirk (D-1), the council’s 2013 chair.

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

Opposition Leader Offers Safety Net

011714_herzog_isaac

Isaac Herzog
(Issam Rimawi/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

Since he became head of Israel’s Labor Party in November, Isaac Herzog has positioned himself as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s safety net. If Netanyahu comes home with a peace deal with the Palestinians and his right wing bolts, Herzog likely will come to the prime minister’s aid.

And as the leader of Israel’s opposition, Herzog is in the wings to replace Netanyahu if the prime minister’s government falls.

Speaking from Israel during a Jan. 9 conference call sponsored by the Israel Policy Forum, Herzog, 53, said he met with Secretary of State John Kerry during Kerry’s recent Mideast swing.

“He [Kerry] is finding ways of getting the parties closer,” Herzog said, adding in the vague terms that have surrounded exactly what the secretary is trying to achieve, “there will be an agreement or understanding in the next few weeks.”

Herzog said he wants to restore political balance that was lost by the decline of the Labor Party and the growth of the Israeli right.

“My goal is to lead a major center-left bloc,” Herzog said, “a bloc that will be an alternative to the right.” He said his bloc would include the following: Tzipi Livni, whose party has six Knesset seats and is in Net-anyahu’s coalition; the small Kadima faction; and the disaffected voters who flocked to Yair Lapid’s insurgent Yesh Atid Party in the last election.

Herzog’s predecessor, Shelly Yachimovich, had run on a platform stressing social justice, but she de-emphasized the peace process as an issue. Herzog said that both are not only part of his agenda, but also intertwined.

“We are a social democratic party,” he said. “Social and economic issues cannot be separated from reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. Social justice should not end at the roadblocks” on the West Bank.

Several times during the conference call he rejected any speculation about a Plan B should Kerry’s diplomatic effort fail to produce an agreement that Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will sign.

“You have to be locked into a process with no alternatives,” he said. “Not only does Netanyahu need to understand, but Abbas also has to understand that he can’t play around on an alternative route if he doesn’t accept the deal that’s on the table. If there’s a vacuum, there’s violence.”

On opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, he said “there’s no light between me and the prime minister. We all identify the danger of Iran.”

He noted that “almost two months have gone by” since the West and Iran signed an interim agreement on the nuclear program. The agreement, set to last six months, has yet to be implemented. “I am bothered by the procrastination of the agreement,” he said.

dholzel@washingtonjewishweek.com

A Changing Commute

011714_changing_commuteIt pays to drive. At least it pays more than taking public transit.

With the start of 2014 came the expiration of the credit allowing public transit commuters to claim up to $245 a month as tax exempt. While public transportation users were watching their maximum credit fall to just $130 per month, the credit for those who drive to work rose an additional $5, to a maximum $250 exemption for parking each month.

The credit for drivers is a permanent part of the tax code, but the benefit for public transit commuters is renewed on a year-to-year basis.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Suzanne Cowperthwaite, who has been commuting to work at Johns Hopkins Hospital on the Baltimore Metro Subway since August.

Cowperthwaite said she enjoys the Metro commute more than driving a personal car into the city every day. “It’s just much more convenient,” she said, adding that she spends the 30-minute trip reading — something out of the question for commuters who choose to drive.

Frustration is widespread among many public transit advocacy groups, said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a Washington, D.C.-based community advocacy organization.

“It’s an extremely misguided budgetary and policy decision by Congress,” said Schwartz, adding that the credit for those who drive to work only adds insult to injury. “The obvious result is that you will end up with a lot more driving and traffic and pollution.”

In addition to the potential environmental costs of providing more incentive for commuters to drive rather than ride mass transit to work, Schwartz also said allowing the credit to expire sends a negative message to the people and urban centers that rely on mass transit.

“It certainly sends the message that [those who commute via public transportation] are not considered equal to those who drive to work,” he said. “It may reflect a misunderstanding of the needs of the metropolitan and urban areas of the country by many members of Congress.”

In the D.C.-Baltimore area, where a weekday average of more than 1.5 million people ride mass transit, buses cover more than 400 routes, and trains cover another 10, in addition to Amtrak lines that extend into other regions of the country.

“The two regions couldn’t function without their robust transit systems,” said Schwartz. “Having the alternative of transit is what keeps this economic region viable and competitive, so it is particularly harmful to the economic competitiveness of this unified region.”

For commuters in the D.C.-Baltimore area, monthly passes can cost anywhere from $64 (Baltimore Metro Subway, Light Rail and local buses) to $250 (MARC pass from Aberdeen to Washington).

“Commuters who use public transportation, and especially those with the longer commutes by rail, bus or van pools, may see their annual commuting cost increase to $1,380 a year based on a bias in the tax code that eliminates the parity between public transportation and auto users,” said American Public Transportation Association President and CEO Michael Melaniphy in a statement released by the organization.

Monsey Trails operates buses in the New York City area and specializes in commuter bus services that transport passengers to and from New York City, Rockland County and Brooklyn for work.

“We’re not concerned about it,” said Monsey Trails’ David Stern of the expiration of the tax credit.

Stern said that the high cost of tolls around the New York area keeps public transit viable: “People need to get to work. They will take public transit.”

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

Beyond The Aleph Bet

Director Zac Price says creative exploration is  encouraged at the Weinberg Park Heights ECE. “We teach [children] to think.” (Provided)

Director Zac Price says creative exploration is
encouraged at the Weinberg Park Heights ECE. “We teach [children] to think.” (Provided)

You won’t find a lot of bright neon colors or posters with the ABCs on the walls of the Weinberg Park Heights Jewish Community Center’s Early Childhood Education Center (ECE). Instead, you’ll see a lot of preschoolers’ art, their family photos and a collage created by the children’s parents. Since he arrived in July 2012, director Zac Price, 33, and one of the country’s only male preschool directors, has presided over significant changes in the program’s educational philosophy, learning environment and teaching methods.

The ECE program is inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach, which stresses the importance of gearing education to the interests and needs of individual children in the learning community.

Reggio Emilia is a town in Italy, where the model, developed by educator Loris Malaguzzi, was first practiced after World War II. It came as a response to Italy’s Fascist regime that, Malaguzzi said, robbed him of much of his childhood. Parents of young children in Reggio Emilia, also deeply affected by the war, were attracted to his ideas about education.

“Parents looked at themselves after the war and said, ‘How did we [our country’s culture] raise children who were Fascists? Let’s make sure it never happens again,’ ” said Price.

Teachers at the ECE learned first-hand about Malaguzzi’s approach when they were part of a group of 70 Jewish educators who traveled to Italy in March 2012 for a five-day intensive training program in Reggio Emilia.

Ironically, the Reggio Emilia philosophy, created and first practiced by non-Jews, is based upon many values and ideas fundamental to Judaism. For example: “the image of each child as unique; awe and amazement; the value of education; the power of questioning; and the importance of community,” said Price.

Price also emphasized that each child has a unique learning style and said the program individualizes its methodology to meet the needs and interests of every class member.

“Each child will do things differently,” he said. “All that some kids want to do is take things apart; other kids just want to be physical with something; others are ‘thinkers.’ ”

Riley Burger was in his third year at the ECE when the Reggio Emilia approach was introduced. Gabrielle Burger, Riley’s mother, found that it was “a better emotional fit” for preschoolers compared with more traditional approaches.

“A lot of schools assume that little kids need to be told what to do, that they don’t know anything and don’t have anything to give,” said Burger. “Reggio Emilia empowers children and makes them feel like they have a say in their lives. Usually a teacher will say, ‘Now we’re going to do this, now we’re going to do that. That didn’t work so well for Riley because sometimes he was involved in what he was doing and didn’t want to move on to something else. In the Emilia Reggio approach, [learning] centers are always open.”

Burger credits the approach with helping her son to overcome his reticence about painting.

“Because he could spend more time painting, this child — who never touched a paintbrush unless he was forced to — started coming home with paintings every day,” she said.

Painting, Burger added, helped Riley with his fine motor coordination, making this year’s transition to kindergarten at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School much easier.

“We don’t do traditional art projects here,” said Price. “An art project really just shows how smart the teacher is. When the teacher tells the children what to do, it doesn’t give the child a chance to explore. It’s like it short circuits that child’s idea.”

In the classroom for 4-year-olds, children have been painting with inspiration from Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Price showed how each child’s painting expressed his or her unique interests. “One child is fascinated in the cypress tree in the painting; another child is working on color,” he said.

When it comes to learning the alphabet, Price said teachers don’t focus on the ABCs. “We talk about the kids’ names and start by teaching them the letters they need in order to write their own names,” he explained. “Then we teach them their friends’ names. Then we fill in the rest. In the 3-year-olds’ class we have them write notes to each other. Sometimes letters are inverted or [there are] approximated spellings. That’s part of developmentally appropriate practice. We start with the meaning, then label. Otherwise, the learning doesn’t stick.”

Sometimes learning to read at the ECE starts with pictures and storytelling.

“We might take a book they’ve heard many times and ask, ‘Why don’t you read me the story?’ And the child might say, ‘I don’t know the words.’ Then the teacher might say, ‘Just tell it to me.’ Without the meaning, the learning has no use for them.”

In the weeks preceding Chanukah, for instance, the children learned about light and dark and how these concepts are central to Judaism and Jewish practice.

“We set up a light table, just a table with LED lights underneath so they could experiment,” said Price.

The table had different objects such as small rocks, buttons and a ruler, some of which were opaque, some of which were translucent, he noted.

Rather than provide children with information they may need to problem-solve, teachers ask questions and encourage students to use reflection and creative exploration to discover answers. This process, he stressed, gives students ownership of their projects.

Said Price: “The kids were always wanting to take off their shoes. We thought, either we could fight them on this or we could come up with a solution.”

Through a collaborative community process, a safe solution was reached.

“Now we have a bin by the exit where all the kids’ shoes are kept. That way, in case of a fire, they can grab their shoes as they’re leaving the building,” said Price.

Inherent in the program is its guiding principles of respect, responsibility and community.

“It seems odd compared with how we were taught, but once you see it and go through it [the process], it makes sense,” he added. “We teach them to think, understand and question.”

sellin@jewishtimes.com