Asked where the first garden in the world was, a student stepped up to the mike and answered shyly. Applause erupted from her classmates around her — and from the computer in front of her, where the screen showed a crowd of other students, half a world away.
The quiz — with students from both sides taking turns via Skype — was part of the first live Internet meeting between the seventh- and eighth-graders at the Jewish Educational Center’s Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth and those at the Bnei Akiva Ulpana in Arad, Israel.
The Feb. 7 program marked Tu B’Shevat, Judaism’s “New Year for the Trees,” as well as a global educational partnership connecting Judaism and ecology.
The Eco Connection course is a project of Sviva Israel, the “green” Israeli nonprofit. The local version is run under the auspices of Partnership2Gether, the Jewish Agency for Israel program linking Jewish communities in New Jersey — including the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey — and Delaware with the Negev communities of Arad and Tamar.
For each of the past three years, different groups of students in both places have been studying on-line. The primary focus, according to Sviva Israel executive director Carmi Wisemon, is on renewable energy, like solar and wind power, and on water conservation advancements, a field in which Israel is a leading innovator.
Wisemon, who has visited Bruriah in the past, served as master of ceremonies from the Israeli side for the Feb. 7 event. In the Bruriah classroom, middle school coordinator Zahava Greenwald shared that role with Alayna Karp, a Bruriah graduate and an environmental education counselor for Sviva.
Karp, who is studying ecology and natural resources at Rutgers University, also teaches an ecology course at Temple Beth Miriam, the Reform congregation in Long Branch, and at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Monmouth County in Marlboro.
She said is planning another nine classes with the Bruriah girls. “There had been some on-line communication with the girls in Arad,” she said, “but now that they’ve seen each other, I think they’ll be much more eager to communicate.”
Bruriah and Ulpana Arad are both Orthodox schools, and the girls — clad in T-shirts or sweatshirts and calf-length skirts — seemed almost like mirror images. The kids giggled and waved to each other, and adjusted their hair as their counterparts took turns at the microphone, each side venturing some Hebrew and some English.
Looking at the girls on the screen, a Bruriah girl called out, “You look familiar.”
Another asked, “Do you guys know my brother?” — evidently a student in Israel.
Bruriah student Kayla Ostrov asked the Israelis if they have “smart” boards in their classroom. They said they did. “Cool,” she responded. Chevi Pittinsky told them, “The girls at our school are so nice to each other. There are girls of all types, and we all get along. No one judges anyone.”
Poor sound quality made it hard to hear the response, but the girls applauded warmly anyway. And the teachers and visitors from the Central federation, which has fostered the Eco Connection program as part of its P2Gether “Living Bridge” with Arad, promised to organize a better link for the next time.
“It was weird and it was fun,” a seventh-grader declared as the girls filed back to their regular class. “I hope we can do it again.”