Appointment of Interim Rabbi

Temple Emanuel of South Hills’ Board of Trustees is pleased to announce the appointment of Rabbi Donald Rossoff, D.D., R.J.E., as interim senior rabbi of the South Hills Reform congregation. Rabbi Rossoff’s contract was approved at a congregational meeting on Sunday, February 11, 2018.

Rabbi Rossoff will begin his year-long tenure at Temple Emanuel on July 1, 2018. Outgoing Senior Rabbi Mark Mahler, who has served the congregation for 38 years, will retire June 30, 2018.

Board President David Weisberg is pleased that the congregation approved Rabbi Rossoff’s contract and is looking forward to the future. “Rabbi Rossoff will serve as a bridge for our congregation, from the strong foundation that Rabbi Mahler helped build to a future where we can continue to flourish,” he says.

Over the next several months, Temple Emanuel will begin searching for a settled rabbi and Rabbi Rossoff’s experience assisting synagogues in transition will prove invaluable.

“The Interim Search Committee has no doubt we found the right person in Rabbi Rossoff, and we are thrilled he will be joining us,” says Search Committee Chair Michelle Markowitz. “His experience and demeanor made him the ideal choice to lead us through this important transition.”

Rabbi Rossoff will move to the South Hills with his wife Francine, a registered nurse. The couple has four adult children: Marc, Jenna. Ilana and Nathaniel. He is excited about working at Temple Emanuel and understands the particular role of an interim rabbi. “I will walk with and guide this sacred community on a journey that will take them through the loss they will feel from Rabbi Mahler’s retirement and on to the visioning of the future they would choose for themselves,” he says. “It has been a joy and a privilege to walk that journey with three other congregations and I am excited about the opportunity to join with Temple Emanuel on the journey that lies ahead for them.”

Rabbi Rossoff served as interim rabbi at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lake, NJ (2017-18), Temple Beth Am in Framingham, MA (2016-17), and the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL (2015-16). He also served as senior rabbi of Temple B’Nia Or in Morristown, NJ from 1990-2015. Additionally, he authored the children’s book, “A Perfect Prayer.”

Officiating at Funerals

“Thank You Shabbat Three”

January 12, 2018/26 Tevet, 5778

When Life has Met Death

Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler

This Shabbat we continue with my Thank You Shabbats, this evening for the people whose loved one’s funeral I officiated at. As a prelude to my thanks and to offer them fully, heartfully and soulfully, I begin with four personal reflections.

First. When I was accepted to rabbinic school at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, the dean asked to meet with me. Our conversation was brief but to the point. The dean said to me, “Mark, being a rabbi is a difficult job. On any given day, you’ll have to deal with different emotionally charged situations. You may officiate at a funeral in the morning, then a wedding in the afternoon and then a Shiva minyan in the evening.” Waving his hand in front of his face to emphasize his point, the dean then said, “In these situations, what you have to do is change the mask.”

The dean was correct. Being a rabbi can be an extremely difficult job, fraught with emotionally charged situations. But the dean was also wrong, at least for me. I wasn’t about to contest his well-intentioned advice, but even as a young man just accepted to rabbinic school, I knew that I could never be a rabbi who merely “changes the mask.”

…Which leads to the second reflection. During my first two years as a rabbi, we lived in an apartment in suburban Philadelphia. One morning as I was walking into the building, I exchanged greetings with a neighbor, a young surgeon who was walking out. I said to him, “Off to the operating room?” He answered, “Yes, I’m going to slash for cash!” I replied, “I don’t think you want your patients to hear that.” He said, “Of course not, but I’m sure that you reach a point as a rabbi that you’re emotionally detached, for example, when officiating at a funeral becomes routine.” “Oh no,” I replied, “I have to give my heart in every circumstance.”

Now almost forty years a rabbi, on the days when I had a funeral in the morning, a wedding in the afternoon, and a Shiva minyan in the evening, as well as during the ups and downs on any given day, I have done my best to give my heart.

Third. It wasn’t easy. Years ago while visiting us in Pittsburgh, my sister Jackie observed, “Every time the phone rings in this house, the tension goes up.” The explanation is simple. So many times when the phone has rung over the years, it is a congregant or a funeral home calling for the saddest of all possible reasons.

Fourth. In fact at times it has been extremely difficult. Alice was invited to speak when Temple honored me on the occasion of my twenty-fifth year at Temple. She and I didn’t discuss beforehand what she could or should say. No need: no one knows me better, no one loves me more. Something she said struck deep: “With every death in the congregation, Mark dies a little bit.”

Indeed, sometimes it has been crushing. For each of your loved ones whom I buried, I mourned in my own way, with personal rituals to navigate this difficult emotional terrain.

I always touched the coffin and bid a personal farewell.

For anyone who ever wondered why I always drive myself to the funeral and the cemetery rather than by a funeral home’s limousine, a limousine was once late to pick me up, which then made me late for the funeral. Once was too often.

Over the many years, en route to the cemetery the only music I’ve listened to is Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune, which for me sounds the perfect harmony of the beauty of this world with the mystery of the next world. Otherwise I listen to the news or turn off the radio altogether. Jewish tradition insists that the overall mood of L’vaiyat HaMet, “Accompanying the Dead” be solemn. Kalut Rosh, “Light headedness,” is explicitly discouraged. When people have joked with me at the cemetery, I am always uncomfortable but always polite.

O how I’ve worried each time pall bearers bear their burden at the cemetery. Every pall bearer is unnerved by how heavy any coffin is. Pittsburgh’s hilly cemeteries and frequent inclement weather render their burden even more daunting. As I lead the pall bearers to the grave, while reciting the traditional liturgy, I am quick to point out potential hazards: a muddy patch here, uneven ground there, or slippery artificial ground cover leading to the grave. Then comes their moment of truth when they must mount the planks on either side of the grave – the narrow flexible planks that spring under the weight of each step – in order to place their burden safely on the two narrow straps of the lowering device.

As the coffin is lowered, I recite the traditional Tziduk HaDin, Psalm 49, referring to God as a “Rock,” a poetic image as the coffin descends into the earth. I also watch the little bolt on the lowering device that spins around as the coffin descends. The little bolt stops spinning when the coffin comes to rest at the bottom of the grave. As I watch the bolt spin and then stop, I meditate on the simple yet profound fact that this human body had been in constant motion from the moment it was created at conception. Even after death it continued its unique journey to the funeral home, often to Temple and then to the cemetery. But having arrived now at the bottom of the grave, it has come to eternal rest. How appropriate that we identify this finale with “Rest in peace.”

I also observe a personal Shiva for your loved ones. For many of them, I had been praying for their healing daily for weeks, for months and sometimes for even years. I guesstimate that on any given day, I pray for fifty people or more, having memorized their names alphabetically. Memory then has no “delete” key. After people on my prayer list have died, force of habit keeps me reciting their name in the daily prayer for healing. Each time I do, the pain of their loss resurfaces. It generally takes me a week – Shiva – to remember to forget. Sometimes longer. And sometimes even after years, I remember a name during the prayer for healing that I had once prayed for years ago.

 

Moments of reflection such as this Shabbat evening demand an honest question. Could I have done better? The honest answer for me, and for everyone with at least a modicum of humility, is “Of course,” but I was always trying to do my best, to give my heart. However I thank you for making me feel that my best efforts were always more than good enough.

For your words of gratitude, I thank you. Given your grief, please know that I never counted on encomiums. Therefore I appreciated them all the more when you expressed them.

I thank you for your expressions of gratitude that my words in memory of your loved ones were indeed fitting tributes to their memory that you so cherish.

Everyone grieves differently, some effusively and emotionally, some stoically and privately. Sometimes it has been difficult for me to discern exactly how close I should come or how distant I should remain. If I erred in judgment, I thank you for your forgiveness.

No less is this true for dying as well as death. Sometimes I am greeted in the time leading up to death as a source of strength. Other times, I am spurned as death’s herald. Here too it has been difficult to discern which impact in particular I will have upon people, merely by my presence. Again, if I erred in judgment, I thank you for your forgiveness.

Sometimes your loved one’s funeral was quickly followed by someone else’s loved one’s funeral. Over the years, on average I’ve officiated at twenty-five funerals annually. Dying and death are never spread out smoothly at two or so per month. Often they have been preceded by vigils in the hospital, in hospice or in the home which also require my attention, to give my heart. If you understood these pastoral demands upon me, I thank you.

All funerals are sad, but some are tragic. These especially required me to give my heart. And such are the funerals that broke my heart. But they never shook my faith in God.

A final reflection….

When I was a young man first considering becoming a rabbi, I was inspired by several people, most of all by the rabbi who became my rabbinic mentor and who installed me here as Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in 1985, Rabbi Ely Pilchik of blessed memory. When I first met Rabbi Pilchik in 1972, among his many virtues, his eyes fascinated me. He had eyes like Albert Einstein: eyes that had seen eternity. I wanted to have those same eyes. I wanted to glimpse eternity. Little did I appreciate then exactly how one earns these eyes. Many decades later, I look at myself in the mirror, I see these eyes, and I understand what it has taken to earn them.

Indeed I have glimpsed eternity again and again:

Each time my phone has rung with the saddest of all possible news.

Each time we met thereafter and you’ve told me your loved one’s life story.

Each time I have written the eulogy honoring your loved one’s memory.

Each time I officiated at your loved one’s funeral.

Each time I have led the pall bearers with their heavy burden to the grave.

Each time I have watched that little bolt stop spinning.

Each time we tossed dirt into the grave.

Each time that we recited Kaddish together.

Each time that we have tried to make sense of life in light of death.

Each time that we pondered immortality’s unfathomable possibility measured against mortality’s inescapable reality.

Thank you.

I thank you for extending your hand and heart to me. I thank you for the trust you gave to me. I thank you for taking my hand. I thank you for touching my heart with yours.

 

URJ Biennial: A Teen Perspective

We’ve heard what the URJ Biennial was like from Temple President David Weisberg and VP Michelle Markowitz, but adults weren’t the only ones who attended. Temple member Rebecca Schwartz, a junior at Mt. Lebanon Senior High School, shares her experience:

I often say that it takes two meetings to bring someone into your life: At the first meeting, you get to know someone; at the second meeting, you realize how much you missed them. For me the Biennial was first and foremost a chance to reconnect with the friends I met this summer at the URJ Kutz camp. Honestly, had I just been trapped in the teen lounge with them for the entire Biennial, it would have been enjoyable.

However, we weren’t trapped. For the first time, teens were fully integrated into the adult programming for Biennial. It was amazing; my friends and I were often the youngest ones in the room. We studied the entirety of Genesis chapter 37, learned about environmental activism, and attended an amazing workshop about the relationship between Judaism and Science. (If you have ever had a conversation with me, you can bet I enjoyed that workshop.)

The most amazing part of the conference was the services (yes, even the three hour Saturday morning service complete with a 40 minute sermon). All the teens sat together on the balcony. It is hard to describe how it feels to pray in a room of 6,000. The prayers echoed and resounded across the room. We even got to lead Havdallah on stage with Dan Nichols.

It was so amazing to be at the Biennial, running through the hallways with my friends to chase various Jewish musicians, waking my friends up super early to go to services, and taking nine flights of stairs in high heels because we were so full of energy that we didn’t want to wait for the elevator. Biennial was the first time I realized that adults could be just as into Judaism as teens. It was awesome.

Rebecca (second from right) and friends at the URJ Biennial. Josh Nelson, a Jewish musician, is on the far left.

Jewish Disneyland

Temple Vice President Michelle Markowitz was part of the Temple contingent that attended the URJ Biennial. Like President David Weisberg, this was her first time attending. David shared his thoughts with us; now it’s Michelle’s turn:

I had heard someone describe Biennial as “Jewish Disneyland.” After being there, I feel like that was a pretty accurate description. Everybody was happy to be there and excited about the future of Reform Judaism, both here in the United States and in Israel.

There were so many things that stood out for me. The diversity within our movement is truly inspiring, and the efforts made to include all people, regardless of sexual orientation, disability, or race, and engage in “audacious hospitality” was a common thread that ran through Biennial. The worship also stood out for me, not just because of sheer numbers – I’ve never prayed with 5,500 people before – but mostly because it was joyous, spiritual, and familiar all at the same time.

While I learned many things, the one that stands out in my mind was the focus of the Reform Movement both historically and today on issues of social justice. According to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, “if  the Judaism we offer our young people doesn’t speak to the great moral issues of the day, it won’t speak to them.” With all that goes on in the world, I’d love to see how we can utilize Temple Emanuel to discuss and even act on these great moral issues.

Reflections on the URJ Biennial

Temple President David Weisberg attended his first URJ Biennial last week. “[It was] unbelievable being with 5500+ fellow Jews from all across North America,” he says.

Weisberg was part of a Temple Emanuel contingent that traveled to Boston, Mass. for the opportunity to learn, share, and help shape the future of the Reform Movement. He shares more about his experience:

Q: What did you think it would be like, and what was it really like?

A: I was hopeful that I would be able to learn and further deepen my understanding of best practices across the Reform Movement. The Biennial was that plus more, including being able to meet with fellow congregational presidents and learn from them.

Q: What stands out for you?

A: The worship experiences at Biennial were like nothing I had ever experienced. For Shabbat services, singing the Sh’ma and having multiple Torahs cycle through the crowd of 5500+ was spectacular. Our prayers — along with the cantors and choirs singing — were uplifting and ultimately touched my soul.

Q: What are some things you learned?

A: Interestingly, I learned that there are a lot of Temple Emanuel (or Emanuel-El) across North America. I met congregants from other Emanuels in Toronto, Montreal, Dallas, New York, San Jose, and Hawaii. On a more serious note, I learned that we at Temple Emanuel have a lot of positives going for us. I also learned that there are steps we can take to build on the great foundation we’ve already established as we move into the future.

The next Biennial is in Chicago, Illinois on December 11-15, 2019. Perhaps you’ll join us?

Early Childhood Seminar in Italy!

When Julie Silverman and I embarked in October for an early childhood seminar in Reggio Emilia, Italy, our bags were packed, not only with layers of clothing for various weather conditions, but with a list of questions from our ECDC teachers. Today I’d like to respond to those questions. First I’d like to offer gratitude for the generous support of the Dr. Solomon and Sarah Goldberg Memorial Endowment Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. What a gift it was for our Pittsburgh educators to receive support to visit Reggio Emilia, perhaps the only city in the world that specializes in the field of Early Childhood Education.  Though it would take special research to study the history of Reggio, it was obvious that over the decades their educators, citizens and civic leaders have made countless thoughtful choices that have supported the growth of extraordinary schools.  As students of Reggio, we experienced the intentionality that was apparent in every aspect of our visit. As educators in Jewish schools, we were reminded of the meaning of kavanah – the Jewish concept of focus and concentration in words and action – in this case on behalf of the welfare of children.

There are 23 infant-toddler centers and 21 preschools under the umbrella of the municipality of Reggio Emilia. Most of the schools have three classrooms with 26 children per classroom. Each classroom has two teachers with a possible third teacher if there is a child with special needs, which Reggio educators refer to as special rights. Each school also had a fully staffed kitchen which serves the nutritional needs of the school, including hot lunches and an amazing array of food choices for visitors and events. It is always startling for Americans to see how children set the tables in the dining room with real porcelain plates and glasses.

Our adventure begins on a water taxi in Venice!

Reggio schools are made beautiful by an array of natural materials, interesting use of spaces, irregular classroom layouts and exceptional art work. The classrooms are arranged with a wide range of materials, including duplos, wooden train tracks, cars, plastic animals of all sizes, and lots of loose materials – small and large. Materials are pre-arranged on much of the surfaces. In the center of one table, for example, was a collection of pomegranates, grapes, leaves and oranges.  Baby food jars of paint with corresponding colors and sheets of paper were set along the perimeter of the table.  All of the materials, especially the art materials, were of high quality. Surfaces in the classroom are of multiple heights.  Outdoor areas were large and grassy with few pieces of equipment, possibly one slide. The outdoor areas had lots of large loose materials, including logs and rocks.

Pittsburgh group of 12 in the famous piazza of Reggio Emilia

While visiting one preschool starting at 9:00 am, children were in small and fluid groups. They were drawing, building, engaging in imaginative play with plastic figures and natural materials, and playing outside. The multi-shaped building was designed as a school and each classroom has direct access to the outdoors. Children may go in and out independently. One teacher explained that they can allow the children to be independent because they know them so well based on staying with the same group over the years. For me, one highlight was watching a group of three at an easel. Two girls were drawing at each side while a third child, a boy, sat on a chair and posed for his portrait. One of the girls traced the boy’s face with her finger to get a feel of the shape, while the boy was smiling beatifically, obviously enjoying the contact and attention.  It was a joy to watch the drawings emerge on the paper and the delighted expressions of the children as they compared results.

 

Learning to think critically is central at Reggio schools. Experience with even the youngest children has taught the educators that children have questions about the world and can learn to view things from multiple viewpoints. Investigations are the vehicles for such learning. The learning is not linear and does not consist of a fixed sequence of steps.   Words and phrases used by the Reggio educators to conjure the learning process were: spiraling; ping ponging back and forth; multidimensional; involving multiple viewpoints and using at least two materials or mediums to represent the learning.

Our trip to Italy opened new vistas!

 

I am struck with how far we have come at Temple Emanuel ECDC in our own investigation of the Reggio approach.  We are fully engaged in dialogue, in seeking and listening to multiple points of view.  This is the path of intentionality – of kavanah – of focusing thought conscientiously on what is best for our children.  I am so very grateful to participate in this investigation with our school community.

 

 

Packing My Bags for Reggio Emilia, Italy

As the November 2017 Temple Emanuel Bulletin goes to print, I am packing for a trip to Reggio Emilia in Italy. I am traveling with a group of 63 Educators from Jewish early childhood centers in Pittsburgh, DC, Chicago, Boston and Israel. The group includes one of our wonderful teachers, Julie Silverman, and two of our wonderful Pittsburgh JECEI Consultants, Judy Abrams and Barbara Moser.* During the 10-day trip, we will have the opportunity to visit several of the schools in Reggio Emilia and will attend many seminars and discussion groups. It is my privilege and obligation to share this journey with the Temple community.

 

For those of you who have not heard of Reggio Emilia, I’d like to start with a bit of history. When the Fascists were defeated and World War II ended, a group of parents in Reggio Emilia, a region of northern Italy, built a school out of the rubble of the war. They wanted a better life for their children. Their efforts and dreams laid a unique foundation for a new approach to education. Rather than building a school based on a preconceived model, this school was built on a set of hopes and values. Over the next decades, over 20 early childhood centers were built in Reggio Emilia. The set of values was increasingly tested and articulated. Many thousands of Educators have visited Reggio Emilia over the past three decades. In more recent years the Reggio Emilia approach to early education has taken a stronghold in Jewish programs across the country. This helps to explain why I have the great fortune to participate in 2017 Reggio Seminar: Exploring the Reggio Emilia Approach through a Jewish Perspective,

 

The schools of Reggio Emilia do not follow a method or specific curriculum. Rather, the approach is built on a set of values centered on the belief that children, teachers and parents are competent and that each has a right to participate in a collaborative learning experience. Though vicariously, the Educators of Temple Emanuel are likewise participating in this journey. Here are some of their questions that we are “bringing” to Italy:

 

  • How did Reggio Emilia evolve into a philosophical approach with a world-wide impact?
  • What is the daily classroom schedule?
  • How much time do the children spend indoors/outdoors?
  • How do the children express themselves musically? With instruments? With singing?
  • What toys or materials do they use in the classrooms?
  • What are the playgrounds like?
  • What types of documentation are used?
  • Are parents actively present in the classroom?
  • How do the parents make time for school participation?
  • How does project work get started and how is it sustained?
  • How do the teachers ensure that children are ready for first grade?

 

I would like to acknowledge immense gratitude to The Dr. Solomon and Sarah Goldberg Memorial Endowment Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, for making possible participation in the 2017 Reggio Seminar: Exploring the Reggio Emilia Approach through a Jewish Perspective.

 

*The Pittsburgh Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative (JECEI) is a program supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. The Martha Klein Lottman Family Fund also supports the Pittsburgh JECEI program at Temple Emanuel.

Our Year of Change Begins

The New Year. Football. Hockey. Baseball.

What a fabulous time of year. Autumn is upon us. Leaves are changing. Cool air is sweeping through Greater Pittsburgh as warm thoughts pass through our heads while we think about the year ahead.

The High Holidays have now passed. The field is open as we plan for what lies ahead this upcoming year. Just as the Steelers, Penguins and Pirates all want for this year to better than last, we all can work hard to make that happen in our own lives. This is true for all aspects – personally, professionally and of course our relationship with Judaism and with Temple Emanuel.

Athletes prepare for their seasons with hard work, discipline and diligence. They practice, focus and perform whenever the ball is kicked off, the first puck is dropped or the first pitch is thrown. Of course, not everything can be controlled in the game, but the key is preparation and determination.

I am proud to say that the Board of Trustees is in that same mindset here at Temple Emanuel. We are motivated. We have taken steps to make this year a great year. Each Officer, Trustee and committee chair has agreed to step up his or her game. Why? To become better. Better individuals, a better synagogue and ultimately a better community. It serves us well not only now but also into the future.

Our planning is in process for a Celebration year. We are honoring both Temple Emanuel and Rabbi Mahler, recognizing all that he has given to us through the years. Please plan to attend the upcoming events as opportunities to honor and commemorate.

We also are in the process of planning our next steps after Rabbi Mahler retires and becomes Rabbi Emeritus beginning July 2018. We have a strong Interim Rabbi Search Committee who will assist in identifying our Interim Rabbi for the July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019 year. The, a year from now, we will have a Settled Rabbi Search Committee who will assist in our next search for a Senior Rabbi who will begin July 1, 2019.   Many of you have participated in the congregational survey that was emailed in September 2017. Thank you. There will be additional opportunities for the congregation to have input as we continue our journey.

The groundwork has been laid for us to succeed. Let’s enjoy our community, have spiritual fulfillment and a grand Jewish experience. Let’s ride the energy as we continue to build those connections and a stronger community. Who knows – maybe it will result in a Super Bowl, Stanley Cup or World Series championship. We all can dare to dream, right?

David Weisberg, President

 

How Do We Celebrate Purim at ECDC?

This year at ECDC we celebrated Purim in many traditional ways. We made crowns, graggers and hamentashen. We held our annual carnival where we had a different game in each room.

making a crown purim carnival gamechoc chip hamantashen

 

Weeks before the hamentashen, costumes and three-corner hats, ECDC Educators talked with Rabbi Locketz to think about the best ways to celebrate Purim with young children. We learned that the story of Purim comes from the Book of Esther in the Megillah and that there is no hard evidence that the events actually took place. Though the story includes wickedness and hatred, it has a happy ending – and Purim has evolved as a happy holiday enjoyed by children and adults alike.

Masa and Shelly in costume

 

The story of Purim, as edited for young children:

  • Once upon a time in the lovely town of Shushan, there lived nice Uncle Mordecai and his niece Esther. (Uncle Mordecai and Esther were Jewish.)
  • King Ahasuerus was the king of Shushan. He chose Esther as his wife, because she was kind and smart.
  • Haman worked in the palace, and he was NOT a nice man. He made people bow down to him.
  • Uncle Mordecai would not bow down to Haman. The Jewish people would not bow down to Haman.
  • Haman wanted to send away the people who would not bow down to him.
  • The Jewish people were sad, because they wanted to live in the lovely town of Shushan.
  • Mordecai asked Esther to help her people. Queen Esther had to be very brave.
  • Queen Esther told her husband, King Ahasuerus: I am Jewish and Haman wants to send the Jewish people away.
  • The king was angry and asked his guards to send Haman away instead.
  • Uncle Mordecai came to work in the palace and the people lived happily in the lovely town of Shushan.

 

The children embrace the characters of the story. They love the Purim songs that inspire twirling to the name of Queen Esther and booing to the name of Haman. Intuitively they rejoice in the goodness of Esther and deplore the nastiness of Haman. Though the story is told in a lighthearted manner, they learn about Esther’s bravery and the importance of doing the right thing.

Ben and Ojas two Mayaschef (2) chef (1)

This year I noticed the delight of the children as they pranced in their costumes – turtles, carrots, batmen, chefs, police officers and yes many princesses. I took special delight to hear one of our older children announce: I am not Jewish, but I love Purim!

 

Investigating Clay

Investigating Clay – A Special Kind of Play

Often when we think of children playing, we imagine that they are happily occupied and maybe interacting with friends. But play can be so much more. Play becomes a learning opportunity when one experience builds upon another.  This happens most readily when a teacher (parent or loving adult) facilitates. “Clay Play” at ECDC is an excellent example.

clay one

We are indebted to Michelle Dreyfuss, our fabulous Art Teacher, and to Barbara Moser for introducing clay at ECDC. Ms. Moser is one of our wonderful consultants of the Federation’s Pittsburgh Jewish Early Childhood Initiative. She is also the Art Studio Specialist at the Cyert Center of Carnegie Mellon University.  As Mrs. Dreyfuss explains:

Clay is such a wonderful sensory material for kids to explore; it is smooth and cool to the touch. It can be cut and stacked and molded. Add some water and it becomes a whole new experience. Add wire or string and the children discover something new. As the children become increasingly comfortable with the clay, we see stories and unique creations develop.

The children were introduced gradually to the material and to some of the tools that can be used. They have learned to use wooden dowels for pounding and flattening clay; wire for cutting clay; and water for changing the consistency. They have also enjoyed the use of various materials to print textures into the clay.

On one of the early visits to the Art Studio, Mrs. Dreyfuss showed the children how to roll the clay into balls – big, small and tiny. On a subsequent visit she showed them how to make coils, which can be used to form a bowl! The children examined some actual clay bowls and learned that clay, in contrast to playdoh, actually comes from the earth.

The children are also learning to properly care for clay. At the end of each visit, they each form clay into a cube and use a dowel to make a small dent, which is then filled with water to keep the clay moist while being stored.

As the months have gone by, the children are building structures that are more complex and detailed. In many cases, they have put multiple pieces together to make intricate sculptures. We are so thrilled to see how long they remain engaged with the clay – attentive often up to 40 minutes.

Investigating a material – any material – whether paint, wood, paper or clay, can be a multi-layered process, where discoveries build upon each other. How different from the image of “just child’s play”.

bowls from coils 3 bowl from coils bowl from coils 2Benjamin's snake Ellie with coil