Stories from the Field: Susie Wexler - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Stories from the Field: Susie Wexler

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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Susie WexlerSusie Wexler
Director, Early Childhood Program at the Chava Center
B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, IL
Currently a student in Cohort 7 of the Executive M.A. Program in Jewish Education at HUC-JIR

Susie Wexler is the Director at BJBE Early Childhood Program at the Chava Center. She has a background in social work, Jewish community work and early childhood education. She is a lifelong learner who brings a passion for research and Jewish exploration to young children, families, and staff. A consummate educator, she has presented locally and nationally on best practices in early childhood education. Susie is committed to engaging young families with support and nurturance through developmentally appropriate Jewish education experiences.

I bring my emphasis on the value of language to my role as Director of the BJBE Early Childhood Program at the Chava Center. Because language defines so much of the work we do, we are calling our remote outreach learning connections and focusing on the importance of maintaining those connections. This experience has been a process, built out of ongoing communication with parents, and constant revision. The systems implemented to serve as a stop-gap during a few weeks of being out of school have evolved over time. Much of what we have done is attempt to bring key elements of the school community we have built into families’ homes.

In addition to individual Facetime calls with students, Zoom classroom meetings, pen pals for older children, and driveway celebrations to honor special events, our school has used Facebook as a means of being in touch with families. We have transformed the private Facebook page for the school into a connecting space for the whole school, and established pages for each age group team. The first week we were home, we gathered to celebrate Havdalah; the world may be changing but we could hold our rituals sacred. By the second week, the news had made it clear that this was not going to be a short break. So I added some thoughts on how families could improvise their own Havdalah kit, sharing not just the “how to,” but adding in a new interpretation of the traditional symbols for my ECE families. 

I began by walking around my house to see what I had that I could use. Mindful that I did not want to send parents out to a store during a shelter in place order, it was important that celebrating Havdalah was seen as doable, and enjoyable – not overwhelming. For candles, I grabbed some birthday candles from the kitchen junk drawer, and wrapped them together after softening them atop the toaster for a moment. Symbolically, they can reflect how things are the same and how they are different, and how we can share warmth with others. For spices, an old tulle bag, or just an orange will help you to wake up! and keep your body energized every day. The Kiddush cup could be any old cup decorated, which can serve as a way to find sweetness in each day. And most of all, the moment when we put out the candle in the wine reminding us to feel what we need to feel – and then put it out and get on with the day.

HavdallahIt is important to accept what today is and be ready for tomorrow as best as we can. I don’t see this as working from home, but that we are home during the crisis trying to work. I am balancing the combination of young families and the adults that run their lives, by supporting parents in how to structure developmentally appropriate experiences in a way that can be successful for the whole family. 

This current world that we are living in is an amazing metaphor for being a young child. A lot of things don't make sense, and it feels very out of control. It feels like people have information that we need and don't have, and so in many ways we are the version of our young-self going through this. We want to be nurtured, and held, and supported, and we want the reassurance that we will be safe.

I think for me, that is why I am Jewish educator, because I believe Judaism is the lifeboat that lets us know that bad things have happened, but you will be okay, you'll get through it together. Can't tell you how. Can't tell you when. But I can promise we have gotten through bad things and we will get through this, and someday we will probably have a ritual for it, because that's what we do. Think about how many of our rituals are ways to put the fact that we have survived a bad thing into a manageable context – Seder, Chanukah, Purim. All these bad things that happened, and now we have a ritual. So start making the ritual. Do something that gets you through.

HUC-JIR's Executive M.A. program is generously supported by The Jim Joseph Foundation.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.