Student Teachers Use Games to Teach Kids About Ethiopian Culture

Daniel was born in a country called Ayelet Hashahar. The 6-year-old boy merrily tells this to Meira Solomon, a student in early childhood education visiting his Jerusalem kindergarten, Gan Reishit, on one of the last days of the school year. Solomon nods and explains to the Ethiopian boy that Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar has an absorption center and he was surely born there. But Daniel is adamant and says he wasn't even born in Israel. In Ethiopia, then? No, not there either.

It is symbolic that in Daniel's perception, he has no homeland. Perhaps there is only an absorption center, the place where the seeds were sown for the trauma of immigration, which may be the community's central experience in Israel: the culture shock, the sense of discrimination and insult that came in place of the yearning for the Land of Israel.

Solomon, together with other student teachers at the David Yellin College of Education in Jerusalem who visited the kindergarten, is using games to educate kindergartners about Ethiopian culture and empower the Ethiopian children in the class.

The games, which were developed by the student teachers, are referred to in the professional lingo as "culture-dependent games." They are meant to expose the kindergarten children, about a quarter of whom are of Ethiopian origin, to the culture and heritage of Ethiopian Jewry through the story of the Ethiopian immigration to Israel. Some of the games are based on other countries from which immigrants arrived, such as Yemen and Morocco, and are intended to place the tale of Ethiopian Jewry within the overall context of other immigrations and communities in Israel.

Fixated on the game

A path is marked on Solomon's blue and earthy-brown game board, whose purpose is to prompt its players to identify with the story of the trek made by a fictional Ethiopian boy their own age named Kalkidan. Daniel catches on quickly.

"Here's Ethiopia," says Daniel, pointing to the map. When Solomon tells of the journey undertaken by Kalkidan and his parents, he responds with stories of his own about babies who died and robbers who stopped his parents along the way. It is hard to stem the gush of words coming from him. When Solomon tells of the dilemma facing Kalkidan, who is deciding what to take on the trek, Daniel answers without hesitation that he must take a teddy bear for the way. It is apparent that he identifies completely with the story. However, the other two Ethiopian children listen quietly and are in no rush to cooperate. It seems that the intensity of the experience is silencing them. But they are fixated on the game board.

The Reishit kindergarten is one of four state-run religious kindergartens operating in the urban religious kibbutz Reishit in Jerusalem's Kiryat Menachem neighborhood, where many of the residents are of Ethiopian origin. The integration of Ethiopian children is one of the goals the urban kibbutz has set for itself.

About a quarter of the children in Amitza Kochavi's kindergarten, on Hanurit Street, are Ethiopian. The kindergarten is nestled between ugly housing projects that have become a sort of Ethiopian ghetto, but its drab location does little to curb the freedom the children are given to express themselves. "The children are given space to express themselves," Kochavi says. "They are allowed to talk about the past and about their culture. They do so with the parents' cooperation."

Between Sukkot and Hanukkah this year, the children at Reishit learned about the Sigd festival, an Ethiopian holiday held on the 29th of Heshvan to celebrate receiving the Torah. As the holiday approached, a large photo of an Ethiopian village was hung on the wall, the kindergarten was decorated with Ethiopian motifs and every morning, the children were told a story on the subject - "just as we do ahead of Purim," says Kochavi.

The games appear to mesh well with Kochavi's overall approach. The David Yellin student teachers' work in the Kiryat Menachem neighborhood was made possible thanks to the college's recent decision to send them to distressed neighborhoods. "The college is located in the well-to-do neighborhood of Beit Hakerem, not far away," says Tamar Verta-Zehavi, a David Yellin lecturer on multiculturalism in whose course the students created the games. "But the students didn't believe that such a different reality exists such a short distance away."

Changing stereotypes

Telling the heroic story of the Ethiopian immigration to Israel is meant to empower the Ethiopian children, says Verta-Zehavi. "They become heroes in the eyes of their friends," she says. Verta-Zehavi teaches the students about didactics, or "how to tell a story and how to treat children," as she puts it.

Verta-Zehavi, who did her doctorate in France on the formation of political views in early childhood, says Israeli kindergartens do not do enough to make room for cultures outside the mainstream. "Children of Ethiopian origin hear too much about the general culture and are pushed by this to adopt narratives that are not their own, and this harms them," she says. But games, she says, can do a lot to change stereotypes.

"A game has power," says Verta-Zehavi. "It can be a total experience through which it is possible to instill in children the narratives of the other."