Not long after Amit Stern, a Jerusalem native and one of five shlichim (Israeli emissaries) working with Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, arrived for his three-year term of service, he was looking for area congregational schools to participate in the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Global School Twinning Network.
The network matches schools in the United States and other countries with schools in Israel to promote the sense of Jewish peoplehood and shared responsibility in Israel and around the world.
While Stern was looking for N.J. schools to participate in the program, Leah Beker, a native of Tel Aviv and the director of education at Livingston’s Conservative Temple Beth Shalom, was looking for a twinning program. She spoke to Stern, “and we had our first match in this area of New Jersey,” he said.
The program involved elementary-aged students at all three synagogues, mostly ranging from fourth-through-sixth grade depending on the school.
“I had been looking for a twinning program for a few months,” said Beker, who, with her staff, including teacher Ruth Cohen, have developed a music program at Beth Shalom.
With Beth Shalom in the fold, Stern then contacted several other congregations about possible participation, recruiting two additional area congregational schools — independent B’nai Abraham in Livingston and Conservative Beth Israel in Scotch Plains.
The program tries to match schools based on their strengths and, with Stern’s input, found three matches for the New Jersey schools in Arad, a city on the border of the Negev and Judean desert. Arad was founded by ex-kibbutzniks in 1962 and has a population of approximately 25,000. Stern said that the schools are among the best in Israel. “Arad’s schools received a prize for best education in a municipality from the Israeli Ministry of Education,” he said.
The Arad schools also have areas of specialties including, for example, music, science, and communications. B’nai Abraham was matched with Elementary Avishur, which emphasizes science; and Beth Israel with Elementary Chalamish, which is strong in media and communications.
“In Leah’s case, she asked specifically for music; the others we matched as well as we could,” said Stern.
Beth Shalom was twinned with Elementary Levaot, which also has a strong music program. Beker and her staff did a joint music exercise via Skype at 4:30 a.m. East Coast time with students from Elementary Levaot.
“It was fun for both our kids and Arad’s and was a start for us getting to know each other as people and sharing our Jewish roots,” said Beker.
Melissa Weiner, director of Jewish learning at B’nai Abraham, organized a Tu b’Shvat exercise with the children at her school and the students at Elementary Avishur, in which one tree will be planted in Israel for each participating B’nai Abraham student, and the Livingston students will decorate mezuzahs to be sent to Avishur.
“In return for planting the trees, we were asked to do mitzvot,” said Weiner. “The mezuzahs are part of that.”
At Beth Israel, the students exchanged greetings with Elementary Chalamish using social media channels.
“We feel we need to connect our kids in New Jersey to Israel and the Jewish identity to everything,” said Stern. “We have learned from years of experience in federation that the best way to connect people to Israel is by building a living bridge between people here and in Israel.”
Another important effort made by the six schools involved a teachers’ exchange: teachers from the three Arad schools visited New Jersey this past winter, and the New Jersey group will visit Arad next month.
“The teachers from Arad came here and visited different schools and our synagogues, spent Shabbat in our community, learning about it and getting to know their peers,” said Stern. “The teachers from New Jersey are looking forward to returning the visit.”
In the Greater MetroWest community there are six Rishonim, Israeli youth who have completed high school, but have not yet begun their required military service, assisting with the twinning
“They have really been a help at B’nai Abraham, just with their interaction with us,” said Weiner, who has worked with the Rishonim program for 14 years.
In addition to the three congregational schools, Golda Och Academy, a day school in West Orange, participates in a twinning program with its partner school in Merchavim.
During the 2018-19 school year, nearly 700 schools with some 55,000 students and 2,000-plus teachers participated in the Global School Twinning Network, powered by an Israeli government grant of $2.5 million, according to the Jewish Agency.
The 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,” the agency stated.