About a week ago, I returned from Israel where I was privileged to be accompanying my students on The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles-Vilnius School Twinning program. A total of thirty 8th grade students from Kehillat Israel Religious school in Pacific Palisades, Shalom Aleichem school in Vilnius, Lithuania and Shevach Mofet school in Tel Aviv, traveled, studied and came together for 10 amazing days.
For my first delegation to Tel Aviv as a School Twinning Coordinator, I laid the groundwork for my 8th grade students to meet our Lithuanian and Israeli partners. I taught them about the Russian Aliyah to Israel, the history of the Jews in the Baltics, the Law of Return, and how to be a good guest in a foreign place. I was excited for them to have the opportunity to travel to Israel more or less on their own, shaping their personal understanding of the Jewish state and living with real Israeli families. I imagined they would experience some sort of emotional connection to Israel, and that they would see things completely new to them. But I had no idea how warmly they would be greeted by their Israeli partners, how quickly they would form bonds, and what an impact all three groups would have on one another.
When we arrived in Israel we went straight to our partner school, Shevach Mofet, from the airport. As we stepped off of the bus, all of the Israeli students who we had been corresponding with over Facebook for the past few months came streaming out of the school, beaming and hugging my students. The following morning, when we debriefed with our students, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they had made a nearly seamless transition into their new accommodations. I heard about home cooked meals being shared and about staying up together watching movies and sharing stories, about how one student’s host’s three-year-old brother had followed her around all night, about how impressed my students were with their hosts’ English skills.
As the week went on, I was continually surprised and proud to see my students not only adjusting to their new surroundings, but also reaching out to more reserved students from the other two cities, sitting with them on the bus and walking with them on our tours. I loved seeing their glee and occasional terror while riding camels two-by-two in the desert. Outside of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, two of my students and two of the Israeli students and I talked about different sects of Judaism, each student full of opinions and yet attentive to each others’ commentary. I learned things about religious practice in Israel that I had never heard before, and I was also excited to share with the Israeli girls my experiences growing up Conservative in California and being Bat Mitzvah’d in a Conservative temple.
The students seemed to be particularly moved by our time in Jerusalem during Shabbat, where we welcomed the Sabbath together with our own ceremony and then got to witness a raucous celebration by a group of Orthodox French Jews visiting the same hostel. Some of the Israeli boys in our group even joined the group of French men, jumping and dancing to welcome Shabbat. We had a beautiful Havdalah service outdoors the next evening, singing together with our arms around each other as the stars came out. For some of our students it was the first Shabbat and Havdalah services they had ever participated in. What a special experience for all of our three groups to share.
Tears flowed on the last night of the delegation as my students said goodbye to their hosts and reluctantly boarded to bus to the airport. I was smiling ear to ear as a group of the Israeli boys ran after our bus as we left, all the way around the block.
My students got to see Caesaria and Jerusalem, Yad Vashem and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Masada and Beit Govrin. Not everything was perfect—of course they got tired, the weather sometimes worked against us and there were even some personality clashes in the home stays. But I could see my students going on an emotional journey over the 10 days. I could see them being surprised by what they observed, and I could see them gaining a sense of ownership over their experience in Israel. I was often impressed by their curiosity and the questions they raised. I truly believe that this experience will be formative for their Jewish identities, and that they will always carry with them a sense of pride in forging their own ways in Israel.
Kehillat Israel Coordinator
The Jewish Federation’s School Twinning Program
The Jewish Federation’s School Twinning Program, is the only initiative in existence that connects schools in Los Angeles with schools in Tel Aviv. Since its inception, this powerful program has made an impact on the lives of 60,000 students, parents, and faculty through jointly prepared curricula, teacher training, and delegation exchanges. This past year a school in Vilnius, Lithuania is now included in this three-way partnership. The program strengthens our shared Jewish identity, while fulfilling our Federation’s mission of ensuring the Jewish future. Click here for more information on The Jewish Federation’s School Twinning Program, or contact Ahuva Ron at (323) 761-8332 or Aron@JewishLA.org.