UPDATED: 12/4/19 at 4:15 p.m.
A stuffed brown turtle puppet named Benzi peers at a room full of children and their parents. “Shalom chaverim!” he says cheerfully.
The children laugh and reach out to touch Benzi, who giggles with glee and gives them kisses on the cheek.
Behind Benzi is Sarit Cioban Spector, the K-1 Hebrew and Judaic studies teacher at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax. She’s leading a Baby and Me Hebrew group where parents bring their children, up to age 5, to play and get exposed to Hebrew.
“Early exposure to any language is good,” Spector says before the November class, as Israeli music plays in the background. Even if the children don’t remember the Hebrew, she says, the exposure is good for them developmentally.
That exposure was admissions director Amy Pernick’s goal for this monthly program, which is in its first year.
“This was an activity that I conceptualized in order to provide an outlet for parents and young children,” Pernick says, “to expose them to Hebrew language from an early age, and all the benefits of dual language.”
November’s theme was birthdays — because it happened to be Pernick’s birthday.
“Yom huledet sameach” — happy birthday — Benzi and the children sing to Pernick, as she sits in the front wearing a paper crown. Spector reads a Hebrew book about birthdays to the children. Then, she reads an English-language book — but she adds Hebrew words to the story.
The children dance around the room singing about “uga” (cake) and decorate birthday crowns of their own using stamps and stickers.
Through a partnership with PJ Library and a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, among others, Pernick says, Gesher is able to put on programming like the Baby and Me Hebrew group.
“It enables us to put on programming and events like this, that engage members of the community and expose them to what a day school education is all about,” Pernick says.
It’s not just Gesher families who attend the playgroup, though the school does have programs for kids ages 3 and 4.
Pernick adds, “There are lots of studies that show the benefits of second language acquisition in young children. So we feel that that’s an important hallmark of our program here at Gesher. And a benefit that we want to be able to provide to members of the community as well.”
Two women have brought their kids to the playgroup every month since it started in September, all the way from Silver Spring.
One woman said she and her husband try to speak some Hebrew at home, but they aren’t fluent.
Pernick says the staff was originally hoping for a handful of families, but had 25 families attending the first event. Since then, there have been about 10-25 families each month.
Alona Bunning, who came to the playgroup with her 18-month-old son, Jake, says the class is a nice refresher for her in the language as well.
“I know enough to know the general songs. I know what all the words mean [in the songs],” she says.
The Vienna resident says she tries to speak a little Hebrew at home, but she likes this playgroup.
“It’s nice to have that opportunity,” Bunning says. “It’s nice to expose him to the songs and the culture.”
Baby and Me Hebrew Group is supported by the Day School Engagement and Enrollment initiative, a partnership between Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools and PJ Library, funded by The AVI CHAI Foundation, PJ Library Alliance, and local communities.