Jerusalem — What began as an opportunity for eighth graders in California to meet with Israeli kids their age during a spring trip to Israel has turned into something much deeper.
For the past three years the Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette, Calif., near Berkeley, has been partnering with the Arnon School in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan through a school twinning program run by the Jewish Agency for Israel. As part of the agency’s Global School Twinning Network, the schools’ students and teachers collaborated on an educational project about the Israeli and American national anthems that focused on Israeli and American history and values.
The twinning was an opportunity for students not only to practice their Hebrew or English, but also to get to know each other and broaden their minds, said Hadas Rave, a Judaic studies teacher and director of Jewish life at Contra Costa.
Via face-to-face technology before the trip, the American students taught the Israelis about the history, music and lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and the Israeli kids taught their American peers about “Hatikvah.” Both groups examined the controversies surrounding their respective anthems, including whether NFL players should be punished for kneeling during the song and whether “Hatikvah” excludes the country’s minorities.
When the American students visited Israel last year, Rave said, “the groups had an opportunity to first meet in a Ramat Gan park for an afternoon of relays, organized sports and getting-to-know-you activities. The next day, the small groups met at the Arnon School to put their heads together to “rethink” and “redesign” a new national anthem for Israel.
“We hope to continue to grow and improve this collaboration and continue to build strong and meaningful connections between our two schools,” Rave said.
At a time when the rift between many diaspora and Israeli Jews appears to be deepening, “this program bridges the Israel-diaspora divide,” Isaac Herzog, the Jewish Agency’s chairman, told The Jewish Week. “It’s all the more important because it impacts participants during their formative years and lays the needed foundation for mutual understanding and lasting bonds.”
During the 2018-19 school year, nearly 700 schools with some 55,000 students and 2,000-plus teachers participated in the twinning network (nearly 20 in New York state). Hundreds of additional schools are expected to join the network thanks to an Israeli government grant of $2.5 million, the Jewish Agency announced last summer.
The Global School Twinning Network, which operates on the agency’s Partnership2Gether Platform, “changes the way students and teachers perceive their roles as members of an international Jewish community, fosters dynamic dialogue on Israel and Jewish identity, brings Hebrew alive and more,” according to a press release.
Created more than two decades ago, the twinning program fosters deep ties and community building between partner municipalities all over the world, according to Merav Shany, director of the network for JAFI.
Shany said this is the first time the ministries of education and diaspora affairs are collaborating with the Jewish Agency. “The reason they’re doing this is that they’re looking at Israeli students and want to enlarge their circles of Jewish identity. If you ask a classroom full of Israeli students about their identity, they would talk about their class, their family, perhaps their scout troop or their city. Some will say they’re Israelis. Most wouldn’t talk about being part of a larger world Jewish community, part of something bigger. For many Israelis, Jews abroad aren’t part of their consciousness. They have no experience with the diaspora and often have preconceived notions.”
Yet once they make any kind of connection to diaspora Jews, “something changes,” Shany said. “They want to be involved. They have a sparkle. I’m very proud that the ministries realize this and want to support our twinning program.”
As for some of the thornier issues that divide Israelis and American Jews — pluralism, for instance — Shany says, “It is the educators who decide what to focus on. Some choose history, others religious pluralism, some even choose STEM. But the fact that the Israeli kids are working together with kids abroad is itself pluralism. They get to know that there are other ways of living a Jewish life, and many ways to participate in the Jewish community.”
For diaspora students in congregational and day schools, the program is an opportunity to talk about — and to — individual Israelis, not just the country of Israel.
“It brings Israelis alive. Israel is no longer a poster hanging on the wall. They’re talking to their peers,” Shany said.
Esti Dei, the Israeli twinning coordinator for five schools in Ashkelon, said the program has helped students in both countries realize they are more alike than they are dissimilar.
Dei, whose own school, Madaim in Ashkelon, is twinned with the Ohr Chadash school in Baltimore, said the Israeli and American participants jointly created a bentcher containing the Grace After Meals.
“The kids designed it together and wrote about their own personal experiences on Shabbat and holidays. They got to know each other in the process.”
In another pairing, the Nof Yam school in Ashkelon and Beth Israel in Baltimore created a recipe book that includes family history stories written by every student.
While the program’s focus is first and foremost on the students, it has also fostered strong bonds between the educators.
“I work with American coordinators and we’re one big family. Nothing can come between us,” Dei said.
Joan Vander Walde, Dei’s U.S.-based counterpart, said the students and teachers are getting to know each other personally, “and once their hearts are open their minds become more open. We want students to understand there is a Jewish people broader than what they find in their own neighborhoods, and to make connections with each other.”
Yoram Cohan, an educator at Tel Aviv’s Arnon School, said he decided to twin his seventh and eighth graders with their American peers in order to improve their English, but that the program’s impact was more far-reaching.
“First of all, it was a surprise for them to see other Jewish kids who are studying the same things they’re studying so far away from Israel. They found a lot of things in common.”
Cohan said he and the American teachers encouraged their students to stay connected after school hours, to share what their home life is like, and what they like to do when they’re not studying, via Skype, Zoom or FaceTime. “They began to form friendships.”
The Americans spent two days with their Israeli peers in Ramat Gan, the first day just for fun, outside the classroom, and the second day inside the classroom.
“We mixed them into small groups to complete their projects and to then present them to the class,” Cohan said. “It was very exciting for them.”
Cohan believes the twinning program taught the students valuable life skills.
“When they worked together, we gave them independence. We told them the goals but not totally how to achieve them. They needed to think creatively.”
The program proved to be so educational and fun, the two schools will continue it with a new group of students.
“When I see kids having fun and learning at the same time, for me this is the best,” Cohan said. ✡