Twelve teachers and administrators from Golda Och Academy participated in the school’s first teachers’ mission to Israel in mid-February.
Although the school’s students have been traveling to Israel for years, there has never been a parallel program for teachers.
“We have a great Israel education program for our students but we know that if we want to transform the institution, we have to also extend it to our teachers and staff as well,” said head of school Dr. Joyce Raynor. She added, “We want everyone to be part of our vision of and commitment to Israel education.”
Goals of the trip included finding ways to enhance the school’s existing Israel education program, which already serves as a national model, and to enable staff to better understand the role that traveling to Israel plays in the curriculum.
Raynor said she hopes to run a similar trip for teachers every two years until every faculty and staff member has gone. Eventually, she said, she would like to include the school’s board of trustees.
The Feb. 16-25 trip, which, except for the first three days, coincided with the school’s Presidents Week break, included touring, engaging in text study, and sessions to impart a greater understanding of pluralism in Israel. The teachers also visited Ra’anana and Merchavim, areas partnered with United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, and attended a gathering of school alumni now in Israel.
The trip was paid for through $25,000 in grants from the UJC MetroWest’s Legow Family Israel Program Center and from the iCenter in Chicago. Each participant also paid a nominal fee, and a small portion was paid out of the school’s professional development fund, according to GOA spokesperson Donna Oshri.
A three-day stay in Merchavim, including home hospitality, had what appears to be a lasting impact on several of the teachers. Merchavim is a sister city to UJC MetroWest under the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership 2000 program.
“Sharing time with Yasmin, my Merchavim hostess, was unbelievable,” said Paula Spack, a Judaic studies teacher in the GOA lower school. “I have a whole new family in Israel and have Skyped with them multiple times since I have been home.”
She said she was also happy to make connections in Ra’anana at a school in the TALI network — which provides pluralistic education — that has also received support from UJC MetroWest. “We are excited to have a place to work with to connect our lower school students to Israel,” Spack said. “We have not finalized the exact details but we found that there were many similarities between the two schools and we are looking for opportunities to connect the kids from both schools.”
The delegation explored the situation of Israel’s Bedouins and African refugees and visited both the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, a co-ed yeshiva in Jerusalem, and Alma College in Tel Aviv, which teaches Jewish text in a secular context.
“I was intrigued to learn more about pluralism in Israel, both from the schools we visited and from the beit midrash experiences at Alma and Pardes,” said Nancy Leaderman, GOA upper school principal. “Our interactions with Bedouin and with African refugees also put a human face on some of the complicated issues Israel faces.”
Teachers and administrators had to apply to participate in the trip and those who were accepted are expected to continue collaborating with their Israeli counterparts. Rabbi Michael Monson, who teaches Tanach and rabbinics in the upper school, already has begun a joint project between an Och 10th-grade class and a class in Merchavim. Students in both classes are studying the same text from Maimonides and will exchange experiences on YouTube.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill, upper school prayer coordinator, was one of the participants.
“I am proud to have been a halutza [pioneer] in a vision of transforming an entire community through finding ways for the entire staff and faculty to eventually travel together to Israel,” she said. “The bond to each other, to our counterparts in Ra’anana and in the Merchavim region, and to the land of Israel will transform each individual.”