Ties between young American Jews and Israel — if studies are to be believed — are increasingly fraying. Don’t tell that to the students at the Rambam Mesivta yeshiva in the Five Towns and their counterparts 6,000 miles away in the southern Israeli town of Sderot.
In a unique teleconferencing partnership, believed to be the first of its kind in an American yeshiva, the exchange is attempting to bridge a cavernous cultural divide. After all, the kids from AMIT High School — a diverse mix of Ashkenazim, Sephardim and Ethiopians — have lived with the threat of Hamas rocket fire for several years now in their besieged town near the Gaza border. And the kids from Rambam are living relatively sheltered lives in a safe and affluent hamlet on Long Island’s South Shore.
But for about half an hour once a week, the 20 boys from the two high schools see each other on a television screen, test their skills in a non-native language, gab about music and strengthen bonds, all with the help of state-of-the-art technology.
“It became a very personal type of relationship between my guys at Rambam and [the Israeli students],” explained Rabbi Yotav Eliach, Rambam’s principal and the program coordinator. “They want to act like Israeli Jewish kids, and our guys want to act like American Jewish kids who have a lot in common.”
On a recent weekday at the Rambam School, the boys broke out in cheers when the images of their Israeli friends appeared on the screen. In an instant they excitedly began chatting and joking. This week’s predetermined topic (they range from sports to holidays) was Yom Ha-Shoah. Rabbi Eliach prompted the conversation with questions to both sides, and some of the Israeli boys read prepared statements in carefully pronounced English.
None of the diverse Israeli boys had relatives who were Holocaust survivors, and only one of them had been to the new Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, which opened in 2005. However, they still felt personally affected, and took the story of the Holocaust to heart. They explained how the tragedy is a reminder of the need for a Jewish state, and made them feel unity with the Jewish people.
At the end of each speech, the Americans responded with a chorus of “Yasher Koach” or applauded. The Rambam boys reciprocated by telling stories of their own families and of films they watched at school assemblies. When, in affirming the need for Zionism, they mentioned Rambam graduates who have gone on to join the Israel Defense Forces, the Sderot kids broke out in applause.
On a few occasions, the technical connection was lost, which prompted shouts of annoyance from the boys, but mostly the video was seamless and felt natural.
“The idea is to keep it light,” explained Eliach. “Our kids are cognizant of their reality [in Israel], and there they’re cognizant of the effect it has had on them over the years.” While this harsh reality is not avoided in conversation, it is also not its focus.
“It’s a lot of very personal little things,” he continued. “They were talking about their classes, the sports they like to play, the sports they like to watch. They actually had a lot in common, including music. They like a lot of the same music — some Israeli/Jewish music and a lot of popular music. Once we learned that, two of our guys brought guitars, and they e-mailed me a list of songs to play for a bit.”
The genesis of the exchange began a year ago when the Rambam school sponsored more than 30 students from the Sderot high school for a brief stay here at the end of the American school year, including Shavuot. After living in a city that is under frequent Kassam rocket attacks from across the Gaza border, Rabbi Eliach wanted to give the teenagers there the opportunity to be lauded in America as “vanguards of the Jewish people.”
A Long Island resident, Arthur Carp, who works in the communications technology business, was in his car when he heard a radio story about Rabbi Eliach’s program to bring the Sderot students here.
At first, he said he was hesitant to get involved, believing that the Sderot kids might abandon their town after seeing the relative riches of America.
“They would see houses they could never have in Israel, and would live a life it’s impossible to live in Sderot,” Carp said. “They would think, ‘How can I get out of Sderot, and out of Israel? How can I live in the Goldene Medina?’”
But then he hit upon the idea to create a regular cultural exchange between the two countries without anyone having to leave even their classrooms.
“I got this bug in my head,” Carp insisted. He then approached Rambam and asked them to be the first high school to participate, with the technology (as well as installation and tech support) donated by Carp’s technological support company, Quantalytics. The technology uses the Internet to connect two televisions, and the cameras are comparable to television cameras rather than Webcams.
Considering it cost $4,000 to set up the technology on the American side and $4,250 in Israel, both communities are grateful for the gift. The video technology is so advanced that upon zooming in one could “count an individual’s eyebrows,” according to Carp, who had feared that the technology would end up as “very expensive paperweights” and not that useful in the classroom.
“You need a meshugana to make any idea work,” said Eliach, who insisted that Carp was “the sandak,” or godfather “of this whole thing.”
“I’m going to bring the world to Sderot, one yeshiva and day school at a time,” beamed Carp to Israelis gathered across an ocean. “You’re the first.” The second might be Midreshet Shalhevet High School for girls, Rambam’s sister school in North Woodmere.
The boys on Rambam’s end, all of whom volunteered for the program, are also grateful, and have come to look forward to the meetings.
Dani Edelman, a 16-year-old sophomore, said he feels a stronger connection to Israel through the teleconference. “We get to see what we stand for.”
Michael Rosenfeld, a 14-year-old freshman, said that while most of his friends in America are Ashkenazi, “there are a variety of different Jews [in Sderot],” including Sephardim and an Ethiopian.
The boys also have lighthearted fun at the meetings, including showing off a giant stuffed dog in a Rambam hockey jersey and kipa. They claim that it is retaliation for the Israeli boys inexplicably having a skeleton in the room with them during the first teleconference.
The visual form of communication also did not fail to impress the students. “It’s cool,” said Jeremy Bock, a 14-year-old freshman who has grown up in an age of Google and YouTube, “It’s actually live.”
The Israeli boys look forward to the visits, too. Selected from a group of student leaders at the school, many of them were among the visitors to New York last year.
Michael, 15, would like to visit the States again, but meanwhile enjoys “meeting all my friends from HAFTR last year,” a reference to his Facebook friends from the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway. Alon, 15, says that the Sderot students get to “improve our English and meet new people.”
The Rambam school is no stranger to innovative programs. For years, Rabbi Eliach has enlisted his students as pro-Israel activists. They have created placards and manned the barricades at any number of street protests in Manhattan against such foes of Israel as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and on behalf of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
As for Carp, he has a grand vision for the exchange, hoping to expand the number of cultural exchanges between American and Israeli schools. There are more than 75 AMIT schools in Israel alone, and many more Jewish schools in the United States. Carp next wants to reach out to more, and bigger donors, including the non-Orthodox. He believes cultural exchanges like this one should be a staple of a Jewish day school education.
“Our reach is worldwide,” Carp said. “This will make the diaspora shrink.”
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