Watching the easy manner in which the dozen students sitting in the cafeteria at St. Benedict’s Prep interacted, one might be surprised to learn that half of them are enrolled in a different high school and hadn’t met their counterparts until two days prior. Not only that, the mutual comfort came despite the cultural differences between the Newark Catholic school students and the six visitors from Hadera, Israel.
The 12 teens had already spent several months working together via Skype and WhatsApp to develop a new app that would offer a road service alternative to AAA. On Dec. 12, finally under the same roof, they broke into small, previously arranged groups: five students mapped out the flow of the app; two teams focused on marketing and investigating the competition; and a fourth hunkered down to do the actual coding.
“It’s like they know each other for years,” said Ilana Strahl, the Hadera Amal High School principal who accompanied her students on the trip.
The international exchange program is part of a larger project launched last year by the Amal Network of schools in Israel. Amal, founded in 1928, includes 128 high schools across Israel, including the one in Hadera. The goal for the exchange is not only to expose students to the wider world, but also to move them beyond sightseeing. This is done by having teenagers collaborate with students in other countries for a full academic year to try to solve a problem that affects people worldwide, according to Dani Neuman, director of philanthropic endeavors for the Amal schools.
In 2016-17, the Israelis worked with students at the Bronx High School of Science; this year the program expanded to include two additional teams, including St. Benedict’s and one at Central High School in Philadelphia.
Each team brainstorms ideas to solve a problem of its own choosing, and the students vote on which idea to pursue. Neuman said he hopes the program will eventually expand into other countries.
After just two days together, the N.J. teens were incorporating Hebrew into their vocabularies, working words like “tov,” or good, into casual conversation. They also saw their hometown with fresh eyes.
“We’re so used to seeing Newark all the time, so it’s not really something so crazy to us,” said Daron Reyes of Jersey City. “We see how interested and intrigued [the Israelis] are in everything that they see here. It makes you realize when you see things for a long time you don’t really appreciate it that much.”
Reyes added that there is great potential in collaborating with Israel’s advanced technology sector. “It will be really cool to see if we can combine our knowledge of science and see what we can make,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Israeli teens were impressed with St. Benedict’s focus on looking out for one another. “Here they work a lot on brotherhood and caring for each other,” Gal Shaked said. “If someone is missing, it’s your responsibility to report on it. At [our] school the teacher checks on our names if we are all here and that’s it, and then our homeroom teacher texts us [to see] if everything is OK — so it’s her responsibility, not ours.”
Matan Yariv observed, “Here people are so polite.”
The cafeteria hummed with the students’ conversations. Most were about the app, but teens found time to discuss some of their respective countries’ similarities and differences, everything from their academics and school cultures to how they engage with peers.
In addition to going to school with their U.S. counterparts, the Israelis visited attractions in Newark, like Branch Brook Park and the Ironbound neighborhood, as well as some sites of New York City, including Times Square, Rockefeller Center, and Bryant Park. They also attended a New Jersey Devils game, a Broadway show, and the “Hansel and Gretel” holiday series at the Metropolitan Opera. And as it was Chanukah, each night the whole group — Catholics and Jews together — lit a chanukiah.
The Israelis, who visited between Dec. 10 and 18, stayed at the homes of the St. Benedict’s students. The six Newark students will travel to Israel in March, the second part of the program, which is free for the participants.
The collaboration with St. Benedict’s occurred largely through happenstance. Originally, the exchange was to take place with the Ramaz School, a modern Orthodox yeshiva in Manhattan. When Ramaz backed out, Neuman contacted Father Edwin Leahy, principal of St. Benedict’s. Neuman knew Leahy since accompanying a youth soccer team from Maccabi Haifa to a 2013 international match sponsored by St. Benedict’s. “One thing no one can take away from you is who you’ve met and where you’ve been,” Leahy told NJJN.
When Neuman asked Leahy if his school would take Ramaz’s place, the priest jumped at the opportunity for his diverse student body. “Especially for some of our kids with a limited worldview because of poverty or race, to expose them to as many different things as we can is beneficial for them,” he said, describing the student population as ranging from wealthy to poor to “miserable.”
Leahy said that part of the appeal of working with an Israeli school is that “it’s a partnership you might not expect.” In preparation, his students learned about Judaism and Chanukah, and the ways that Christianity is built on Judaism, as well as “the enormous influence” the Jewish community has had in shaping the history of Newark.
Leahy also saw it as a chance for his students to learn about the Middle East and how Israel came to be. “Christian Europe annihilated Jews. Nobody thinks about that,” he said. And of course, he loves the idea of getting young people from different countries together, “so when you read something in the paper, it’s not theory — they know someone there.” Last spring Leahy visited the school in Hadera and the shidduch was official.
Said Strahl, “I really want them to understand that it’s really not important if they are Jews, Christians, Muslims. They have to live together, to work together, to think together,” she said. “We talked to them a lot before [the trip] that it doesn’t matter who you are; it matters what you are going to do together with your life and how you are going to work together.”
Most of the students were visiting the United States for the first time, and she acknowledged that they were apprehensive about the trip “because of the language and because of the culture.” But it didn’t last. After the first night, Strahl said, “They came in here and they say, ‘Wow. The children are amazing, the families are amazing, the school is amazing.’
“They couldn’t wait to be together and work together.”