"Simon O'mer . . ." A dozen children touch their heads. "Simon O'mer. . ." They hop on one foot. "Simon O'mer . . ." "You're OUT!" someone shrieks.
At the Aleph Bet Day School in Annapolis, the childrenare playing Simon Says -- in Hebrew.
They have just finished a story in Hebrew, and soon they will pair off for a Jewish dance in the school hallway, under the direction of Hebrew teacher Esther Fishman, an Israeli native.
To Leslie Rosen, the head teacher at the school, a simple game played in Hebrew is more than just a game. It creates a sense of cultural identity.
One child in Rosen's class, who transferred from a public school, told her teacher the thing she liked best was that she's "not alone here".
"For Jews in this day and age, and especially in this county, where the Jewish population is small, children can have a sense of rootlessness," Rosen says. About 1,000 Jewish families live in Anne Arundel, which means a Jewish child attending a public school can be the only Jew in his or her grade, Rosen explains.
"A school like this gives them a sense of community and ethnic pride, without ethnic chauvinism."
Six area synagogues started the school, located on the grounds of the Kneseth Israel Synagogue, two years ago. Since then, AlephBet has grown from a kindergarten class to include first through third grades. The school's founders hope to add one grade each year.
The children of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis attend the school, as well as a few non-Jewish children. "It's a small miracle, the way we have exemplified the value of Jews getting along, despite some real theological differences," Rosen says.
In one class, she has children who were reared speaking Hebrew, as well as children who go home from school and teach the language to their parents.
First-graders learn to read Hebrew through the Jewish classics, as well asDr. Seuss books written in Hebrew. The 45-minute daily class is conducted entirely in Hebrew. As students advance to higher grades, they study Hebrew structure and grammar and begin to write stories in Hebrew.
By second grade, the children begin to study the Torah in the original with textual analysis. In the spring, they simulate a visit to Israel.
Kneseth Israel Rabbi Seth Gordon says class sizes average between six and 10 students, which Rosen calls "dream classes -- large enough for good discussions but small enough so you really know each child."
The academic excellence translates into above-averagegrade scores, Gordon says.
But to the rabbi, even more important than either cultural identity or academic excellence is the sense of moral values the students learn.
Studying religious holidays and the Sabbath as well as Bible stories of ancestors such as Abraham, thechildren learn values such as mutual respect, caring and charity.
"The public school system teaches the values of secularism," says Gordon. "But schools cannot be value-neutral. Good and evil end up becoming the same thing to many people."
In contrast, when a teacher at Aleph Bet sees a child hit another child, the rabbi says, "there's a religious tradition we can draw on (to make them understand why theaction is wrong). I care mostly what kind of people they're going tobe. Are they going to be good people?"
The lure of values draws non-Jewish parents to the school, also.One Roman Catholic mother, Sil Bobinski, moved her two children to Aleph Bet because she thinks theyare getting a better education.
"They might not have the latest equipment or new toys, but the teachers are caring and loving," says Bobinski, an Annapolis resident. "They care about the children as souls."
Another drawing card is the tuition, fairly low by private school standards. Kindergartners pay $3,000 a year and first- through third-graders $3,600.
Keeping the cost down means Aleph Bet must raise about $60,000 each year to run the school and pay teachers salaries that are competitive with those of public school instructors, Rosensays.
One such fund-raiser, a dinner dance Oct. 20 at Kneseth Israel, will honor two people who have made the school possible.
Hannah Kotzin, 80, will be recognized for her contribution to the emotional life of Aleph Bet. Kotzin attends all school functions, talks to the students and organizes a hot lunch for them once a week. She helped the school get a grant to organize an Outreach Program to senior citizens, in which Aleph Bet students next month will perform Jewish folk dances.
Also honored will be Lionel Brooks, whose birthday present to his mother last year was a substantial contribution to the school.
Such people help to preserve the Jewish community, Gordon says. "Children learn to look at the world through religious eyes and a network of the Jewish community. The average Jew looks and dresses like any American. So the question becomes how a religious and ethnic people can preserve its cultural identity."