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Learning in a Box

Activity boxes open up Jewish learning, STEM, and fun to kids and parents  

By Stacey Dresner

Some of the fun activities inside Camp-in-a-Box.

WESTERN Mass. – It has been a long summer for the parents of small and school-aged children, many of whom are exhausted from trying to keep their kids engaged while they themselves work from home during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

In Western Mass., several Jewish agencies have developed specialized sets of activities “in-a-box” that are not only fun for children, but also include important opportunities for learning.

When Sara Bedford, the New American Program Director at Jewish Family Services of Western Mass. approached the Springfield Jewish Community Center with the idea to create activity boxes for refugee and low-income youth in the area, JCC leadership jumped at the chance to collaborate, especially since the JCC’s physical camp program was closed this summer due to Covid.

The result was Camp-in-a-Box.

By early July, two rooms in the JCC were filled with 400 cardboard boxes packed with Camp-in-a-Box activity materials. 

With a generous grant from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts to JFS, along with support from HIAS, The Philanthropic Initiative of Boston (TPI), the Jewish Endowment Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and PJ Library Western Massachusetts, as well as many other local partners, sponsors, and volunteers, JFS and the JCC combined resources to create the boxes. 

“This was a real labor of love for our staff to make sure the kids had something to do over the summer,” said Michael Paysnick, executive director of the Springfield JCC.

While the JCC distributed boxes to JCC summer day campers who missed out on camp this summer, the JFS adapted approximately 250 of the boxes for its refugee and low-income children. Some of the other JCC boxes went to PJ Library families via the Jewish Federation.

Educational subscription boxes for children have been around for a while – with specialized boxes offering kids packaged deliveries of arts & crafts, STEM projects, even food and meal kits for young cooks.

Camp-in-a-Box was distributed to more than 200 young members of Springfield’s refugee community.

In a world where technological devices rule, all of these cardboard activity boxes seem to be welcome addition to many families hunkering down during the pandemic.

“We are all in this kind of bubble where we’re looking for solutions to being at home with kids…Parents are now feeling – the term is —  ‘Zoomed out,’” laughed Nora Gorenstein, development officer for the Jewish Federation of Western Mass., and the parent of two small daughters. “With younger children especially, we’re trying to limit screen time … We can do these activities with our kids, in whatever format, no matter who is watching the kids, whether that’s a caretaker, or the grandparents or the parents.”

Inside each box is a camp guide listing the activities, including scavenger hunts, lessons on animals and nature, making kaleidoscopes and origami, a plant-focused project with seeds, designing t-shirts, and a Frisbee game (with a Frisbee in each box).

JFS brought in refugee youth expert Susan Tuberville to help adapt the boxes for refugee children. This included translating activities into Nepali and Swahili, so that New American parents would be able assist and participate with their children. There are also English language development activities to help the children work on their language skills.

“New American parents struggled at the outset of the summer just as other parents did – they were worried about their kids and how to help them learn and have fun in the time of COVID-19,” said Bedford. “Many parents also had big barriers to contend with – smaller budgets, parents who cannot work from home, and limited English or digital literacy skills. JFS and the JCC teamed up to help parents overcome these barriers and make sure that every New American kid had something to look forward to each day of summer – even amidst Coronavirus.”

 The first box went out to families in the middle of July. The second box, featuring more than 20 new activities — and a soccer ball – went out to families on Aug. 6. 


Making connections with Kesher Crates

Keren Rhodes, education director at the Jewish Community of Amherst, has been considering creating activity boxes for her religious school students for some time.  

“It’s an idea I had tossed around in my head for a while,” Rhodes said. “My kids have received various subscription crates over the years – science, technology and arts and whatever – and they have been very engaging for them. I had been thinking about them in terms of keeping Jewish learning going during the summer, but I just never had the time to pull it together.”

When the pandemic hit in March, Rhodes had to figure out a way to re-think Hebrew school at JCA.

“Within three days I was like, ‘Hebrew school on Zoom is going to be a bad idea.’ I was already overwhelmed,” she said. “Our in-person model didn’t lend itself to switching over to Zoom easily, and kids aren’t going to do three hours on Zoom on a Sunday morning. And I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of trying to reinvent our curriculum, which is reactive and too hands-on to work well on Zoom.”

Rhodes had already been collecting numerous activities for the boxes she had dreamed of creating. 

“I said, ‘Let’s just do it. Let’s pull it together quickly and send one out.’” 

She called it a “Kesher Crate.”

“Kesher means ‘connection,’ so they are activities that help you feel connected to your Jewish identity,” she explained.

The first Kesher Crate, with a Passover theme, had only two activities – an art and a science project. 

Children in Longmeadow enjoy opening their Camp-in-a-Box and searching through its activities.

“I assembled them on my kitchen table. I hand washed and was masked and then after they were assembled they were quarantined before they went in the mail, because everything was new and we didn’t know what was at risk,” she explained. “We were only planning on doing the one, but the feedback was so fabulous from it I said, ‘Let’s try to pull one more together.’”

The second Kesher crate was Shavuot themed and included a bag of ice, salt and a thermometer. Students were asked to use the thermometer to take the temperature of the ice under different conditions – and then to make ice cream.

So while they touch on Shavuot and its connection to dairy — “It’s real, engaged, interesting learning,” Rhodes said.

“I really believe in the melding of Jewish learning and science, both because science and stem activities are so exciting and engaging for kids, but also, because, I think for a lot of kids there is a separation — there is the religious Jewish stuff and then there’s ‘What I really know about the world. There’s Creation, but I know there was Evolution.’ We are teaching them there doesn’t have to be an either/or. Science can help you engage with your Jewish feelings.”

An example of this was the science project in the Passover Kesher Crate.

“We talked about potential and kinetic energy and we made little marshmallow catapults with a spoon. First they learned a real science lesson – potential energy is when you’re pulling the spoon back and you’re loading up the energy; the kinetic energy is when you release it and the energy store in the spoon flings the marshmallow,” Rhodes explained. “Well, what does that have to do with Jewish learning?  We also talked about Ometz Lev – courage of the heart. They learned that to take courageous action requires that you have a value inside first – that’s your potential energy. You have the value that you hold, that you are going to stand up for, that gives you the ability to take kinetic energy action on the world. 

“So if you believe people should be treated equally and then you go to a Black Lives Matter march, you’re potential energy is the value that people should be equal. And then it takes perseverance and courage to follow through and do something about it. The value on its own is useless if you don’t do anything about it, but it takes courage to step out and do something. So that’s the tie in with the physics of potential energy and kinetic energy. Understanding the concepts in that way teaches really meaningful lessons to children…So its not just Jewish education, they are learning something about the world and science.”

Rhodes has devised most of the activities – with some help from Google. She also plans to use some curriculum from the Jewish Education Center in Cleveland.

The Kesher Crates will effectively become JCA’s religious school for the coming year. They will go out to JCA’s approximately 60 religious school students every six weeks – three boxes in the fall and then three after the beginning of the year. 

“They will have 4-5 activities each – a bit more robust because I have had all summer to plan — and there will be two versions, one geared towards younger children, the other aimed at children in grades 3 and up,” she said.

For each box, 45 minute Zoom sessions will be held “where the kids can share the work that they’ve done and there will be a teacher there to deepen the learning and make sure that the Jewish piece gets pulled out and really clarified,” Rhodes said.

And with concerns about Covid still high, the Kesher Crates will remain a God-send to parents.

“It gives parents flexibility if they are working from home. It looks like we are going to still be home from school for another semester. So it gives parents the flexibility to not have to sit next to their kids during three hours of Zoom Hebrew school or if they have more than one kid, they can do the activities together,” Rhodes said. “It’s whatever is convenient for you. If you want to save it for the rainy day, you can save it for the rainy day.” 

In the continued spirit of collaboration, the Jewish Federation and PJ Library are now working with Rhodes and Kesher Crates. A PJ Library activity is inside the August Kesher Crate and 50 PJ Library families signed up to receive it. Funding came from the Grinspoon Foundation.

Now the goal is to do more for younger children.

“We’re doing something really for elementary school age children, but what about the younger kids, because that’s hard too. I have little ones at home. I know finding activities for them to do is little more work than we need to be doing right now,” Gorenstein said. “We asked the JCC to help us in putting together a box that is really in cooperation with the other day school initiative.”

“LGA is partnering with PJ Library of Western Mass and the Springfield JCC to bring Camp in a Box to young families in our community, thanks to generous funding from Prizmah and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation,” said Ellen Frank, executive director of Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton. “We are thrilled to provide a variety of activities for families with 3-5 year olds. Many of the activities reflect the types of projects that happen in the classroom at LGA, including some STEM focused activities. The boxes were distributed from LGA in late July, providing engaging content for families in their homes.”

As for Rhodes she is working on her Kesher Crates for the fall. One with the theme of Shalom – peace – will go out at the end of August to all of the students who enroll in the upcoming religious school year at JCA, as well as PJ Library families. The crate will include a science project making giant bubbles. 

While she hopes to do some “pop-up” in person events – maybe including a hike where the students can be socially distanced and wear masks – she wants to make sure Jewish learning at JCA is maintained throughout the year.

“For me this is about minimizing screen time while making sure that we’re still have really in-depth meaningful learning in this year that we’re not gong to see each other.”

Main Photo: JCA religious school students examining the Shavuot project in their Kesher Crate.

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