Judah and the Shavuot parade
What do you expect when you walk into a lively kindergarten here in Israel? After bracing myself against the anticipated chaos and blaring music of an imminent festival, I noticed the redeeming feature - the sight of the adorable little ones.
That’s why I thought I must be in the wrong place when I visited the Waldorf nursery school in the old community center on Moshav Yanuv near Kfar Yona.
I was led around the outside of a soft yellow large wooden hut. From the sandy back garden, a few gentle laughs and murmurs wafted and round the corner was a handful of children playing among the branches of a low tree while others played with wooden toys and boxes. There was a totally unexpected atmosphere of calm and quiet concentration with the same atmosphere permeating the rooms inside the houses of the other two age groups too.
This island of contentment is the labour of love of Pedagogic Director Simone Sahar. Simone is assisted both by her sister, Chaya Leah, in the strictly kosher and organic kitchen, and in the administration by her nursing and midwifery qualified mother, Channi Hurwitz.
Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, they are justifiably proud that the kindergarten is flourishing with 45 happy children shepherded by its staff of seven nursery teachers and assistants including one male and two Arab young women.
Initially, when the moshav put out to tender the dilapidated community center in 2007, it was being used as an art school and Channi and Simone had considered making into a folk music base.
They were astounded when the moshav committee manager told them it was theirs and, “in a leap of faith”, they took the lease for 10 years. With the help of her talented general builder husband Eran, Simone set about renovating the wooden building.
“It took us two weeks working from 7 am to midnight, “says Simone. “Yes, and we had to deal with vicious bees that kept returning because there was a beehive in the wooden walls,” adds Channi.
On its first day the kindergarten, named Hineni BeYanuv, welcomed two children; a third child turned up on the second day and a fourth joined during the first year. By the second year, there were 30 children and now there are 45. Simone and Channi have extended their lease for another five years until 2022.
So what is different about a Waldorf kindergarten?
Simone, herself the mother of three young children, explains, “A Waldorf education looks at children with the aim of nurturing them as a whole – body, soul and spirit and incorporates Steiner’s Wisdom of Man, i.e. anthroposophy. It relates to every aspect of life.”
“Standard education misses this out,” she adds.” Today, education is geared towards the child thinking all the time.”
However, she says “Steiner was very prescient. He looked at what a child needs in order to develop at each stage”. Underpinning this, she clarifies, is a three-fold understanding of development.
From 0 to 7 a child is in its “willing” stage where he or she moves and undergoes physical development. The child lives in the moment in a dream-like existence. “From 7 to 14, the child experiences the world through feeling and the senses dominate. From 14 to adulthood is the thinking stage,” she concludes.
At the school, plastic toys are not used – only wood and things that can be different all the time.
“Children need to express their imaginations,” she explains. “They would rather do real things: wash dishes, cook, sweep the floor, play with a bowl and spoon, make toys and dolls, sew, knit, carve with wood. They want to participate.”
Understanding how such an unusual kindergarten came about means understanding the journey travelled by Simone and her family and the formative influences that led to the choice of educational methods underpinning the ethos of the school.
Simone’s mother Channi grew up in Pretoria, attended Habonim and married Bernard Hurwitz, then a student vet at the University of Pretoria, in 1971. She qualified as a nurse in Johannesburg General Hospital and trained as a midwife back in Pretoria.
This year is what Channi calls “the ruby anniversary” of their aliyah in June 1977, accompanied by their four-year-old daughter Chaya Leah and her 18 months old sister Simone. The family lived on an Absorption Center in Ashkelon and then in Raanana. A colleague of Bernard’s suggested they settle on the agricultural moshav of Yanuv but Channi was not interested. After viewing a multitude of moshavim, she finally condescended to visit Yanuv.
Despite the lack of fences between homes, no pavements, no proper roads or other basics, Channi fell in love with its simplicity. This coup de foudre involved the sight of all the jacaranda trees in full bloom in May reminding her of her beloved grandmother’s home in Pretoria. They were the first people to buy into the moshav and moved there in 1990 and Bernard continued his veterinary practice in Raanana.
Channi joined ESRA as a young wife and was encouraged by Merle Guttmann, ESRA Founder and Honorary Life President and magazine editor, and she became ESRA’s organizer for local and overseas trips then went on to become ESRA chairperson for a couple of years in the mid-1980s.
She started an ESRA group for children with disabilities in nearby Kfar Yona. Work-wise she ran a slimming club in Raanana. In 1992, she started working as cultural coordinator at Beth Protea in Herzliya and also as a nurse. She still works there in evening shifts while ably undertaking administration at the kindergarten every morning.
From the age of 17, Simone was involved in care work and from 20, she worked in a boarding school for problem teenagers with addictions based on the kibbutz where her mother Channi was a nurse.
In between, Simone served in the army and was searching for her own direction afterwards. At 23, after six months in Sinai, the oft-taken post- IDF path to India beckoned and she was so impressed and influenced by the spirituality she found there that, in comparison, the West seemed shallow and materialistic. The yoga she learned proved useful later too.
She explains: “I needed a goal and to accomplish something. It was hard to come back from India and I felt I needed to be with kids and learn how to play again – to see the sky and flowers and be excited by them.”
She followed a childhood sweetheart to South Africa but instead fell in love with Waldorf. There she lived with her grandmother and worked for two years in a village Waldorf school that grew and grew and her potential was recognized. It was there that she first heard of Emerson College in East Sussex, UK. The main obstacle was the currency exchange rate but when she saw the brochure “its holistic approach was all that she had ever dreamt of”.
Afterwards she stayed with a cousin in Knysna and then at a backpackers’ hostel. After a night talking round a camp fire, the manager asked her to stay and transform it into a place for more people like her who were interested in alternative and spiritual ways of life. So she opened a massage parlor and taught yoga while at the coast, she cleaned a yacht daily and visited beautiful locations.
The children celebrating Lag Ba’Omer with Polly
After two months of waiting to hear about a UK visa, she was asked about her origins and when it was revealed her grandmother was born in transit between Lithuania and Britain, Simone discovered she could apply for a work permit and British nationality.
She flew back to Israel where she worked with children to save up to go to Britain. A care agency found her work in in Southport on the north-west coast of England where she spent a year. Aged 27 and determined, she then made her way to Emerson College which “came up to my expectations and more”.
There were students from 39 countries. This was not a typical college education. “It felt like being in a Harry Potter book. There was singing every morning” she explains.
“In the foundation year we studied about the world and one’s place in it, including ‘sacred geometry’ (e.g. the Fibonacci ratio underpinning the mathematics of nature). Goethian science included observation such as watching a plant coming into flower for two hours a day for a month.
Other subjects were speech and drama, sculpture, story-telling, eurhythmics, art and the evolution of consciousness through listening. In the second year, she chose education as her special course.
What Simone was studying there was Anthroposophism - the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner and its application to her elective specialty, education.
Young gardeners with Simone
Steiner (1861-1925) was an Austrian scientist, a Christian and a thinker whose philosophy holds that a human being is a threefold being of spirit, soul and body whose capacities unfold in three stages: early childhood, middle childhood and adolescence. He applied that philosophy to the first Waldorf school – so named because it was opened for the children of the employees of the Waldorf Astoria Cigarette Factory in Stuttgart, Germany.
Today, throughout the world, there are schools, nurseries and educational, social and artistic initiatives run according to or inspired by Steiner’s philosophy as applied in that first Waldorf school.
Simone was subsequently offered positions around the world and has even worked for a while running a kindergarten at a Waldorf kindergarten in Tel Aviv. But when the chance came to run her own came up on Moshav Yanuv, the wheel turned full circle and she made peace with herself, her identity as an Israeli and her family and settled down to set up this successful and special kindergarten.
Congratulations to Channi, Simone, Chaya Leah and all the staff on its 10th anniversary!