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For high school students near and far, ‘twinning’ programs help close the distance between American Jews and Israelis

Contra Costa Jewish Day School students present a national anthem project together with students from the Arnon School in Ramat Gan. Courtesy of Contra Costa Jewish Day School
Contra Costa Jewish Day School students present a national anthem project together with students from the Arnon School in Ramat Gan. Courtesy of Contra Costa Jewish Day School

The Jewish Agency for Israel’s (JAFI) Global School Twinning Network matches New Jersey congregational schools, and day schools, with similar educational outlets in Israel. The result is the development of relationships between N.J. students and their peers in Israel.

Three Greater MetroWest congregations — Temple B’nai Abraham and Temple Beth Shalom, both in Livingston, and Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains — were matched with schools in Arad, Israel, through Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ shaliach (Israel emissary) Amit Stern. While Temple Emanu-El in Edison, affiliated with the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ, was matched with a high school in Midreshet Rupin, located in Emek Chefer near Netanya.

“When I came here, one of the things I was looking to do was set up a twinning program,” said Stern. “I am really happy we were able to get such a strong program and strong relationships with the three schools in MetroWest as a part of the Global School Twinning Network.”

At Temple Emanu-El, JAFI’s Twinning Network contacted Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg directly, according to synagogue education director Jill Santoni. Her high school group was twinned with students in Kiryat Hinuch Ben Gurion High School.

All of the participating schools’ students have gotten to know each other through several projects, utilizing online tools such as Skype and social media channels.

“I honestly did not expect so much progress in our first year. It’s been excellent,” said Stern. The quality of the education offered by their counterparts was impressive, he added, noting that “Arad schools just got an award from the Minister of Education as being the best in Israel.”

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, JAFI’s chairman, told NJJN. “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. Hundreds of additional schools are expected to join the network thanks to an Israeli government grant of $2.5 million, JAFI announced last summer.

The Global School Twinning Network, which operates on JAFI’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 said.

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 JAFI.

“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,” she said. “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 — Israelis as people, and not just as a country.

“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 bencher 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 the 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.

Michele Chabin is a contributing editor to The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. NJJN Staff Writer Jed Weisberger contributed reporting.

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