The second graders at the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway (HAFTR) were divided into two groups to build a house out of Lego blocks. Half of the students had one hand tied behind their backs, while the other half had the free use of both hands.
“OK, let’s go,” prompted 19-year-old Tova Cohen, who was leading the activity along with Hodaya Levy.
Within minutes, the results were obvious; there was a dramatic difference between the groups.
Using Legos as a tool to demonstrate the differences between weakness and strength, the two young women then brought a history lesson to their students, sharing the story of how both in 1948 and 1967, the Israeli army was weak in the hands of the strong, few in the hands of many, but fought for their land and persevered to win independence for their country.
Inside “Cheder Israel,” a specially decorated room at HAFTR designated for programs about Israel, this hands-on activity was just one of many interactive lessons and ongoing projects that are part of the Bat Ami program. The activities are tailored in complexity to the age of the students, but all share one common theme: Israel.
In Israel, Orthodox young women have the opportunity to do the second year of their national service abroad, in lieu of army service. Their mission as Bat Ami “ambassadors” is to serve Israel by coming to communities in the United States and serving as assistant educators in schools—implementing and facilitating programs to help enhance Jewish identity and the connection to Israel.
For the past seven years, HAFTR, a centrist modern Orthodox day school on the South Shore of Long Island, has been inviting young Israeli women into their community through the Bat Ami program. This year, four young women have become part of the HAFTR family, working with students every day in school, and spending Shabbat at the homes of different local families.
Tova Zucker, the director of special programs at HAFTR, said, “They not only serve as teachers, but become friends to the students. They bring a lot of spirit to the school.”
One of the earliest projects of Roni Sharabi, who works with middle school students at HAFTR, was to investigate the Hebrew birthdays of each student, and on their birthdays, presents them with a special Israeli birthday card, along with a lollipop.
Last month, Tova Cohen and Hodaya Levy, who work with the lower school students, used puzzles to help bring the students an understanding of Chanukah. To one group of children, they handed out a puzzle, accompanied by a picture of what the finished design should look like. A second group faced the challenge of assembling the puzzle with no picture.
The young teachers then compared the challenges of doing a puzzle to the time of Chanukah, when the Israelis were also at a disadvantage because they had no game plan, but their weakness was overcompensated by their courage and perseverance.
Throughout the school year, the Bat Ami activities and projects are ongoing, culminating in May, at Yom Ha’atzmaut, when the four young women will plan and orchestrate the school-wide celebration in honor of the national independence day of Israel.
For the young Israeli women, the Bat Ami program has provided an opportunity to share their culture and at the same time, to learn first-hand about life in America. From attending the Thanksgiving Day parade to sightseeing in Manhattan, Cohen said, “Our experience in New York is very different in so many ways from living in Israel.”
For the HAFTR students, the Bat Ami program has opened exciting doors to learn about Israeli culture, and to form new friendships.
Alisa Glickman, a mother of three HAFTR students, who volunteered as a Bat Ami host, said, “Having two of the girls live with us this year has been an indescribable experience for my children. Their Hebrew has improved dramatically, and they have made two very special new friends. The girls have taught them Israeli games and songs while they hang out, play games on the computer and put on shows together. These young women have been wonderful influences on my kids.”