HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Bridging the Gap

TOPICS : Israel

In 2004, it was twenty very tall eighth graders from Buenos Aires, who thought that their southern hemisphere “winter” jackets could really hold up against a Midwestern January (they were wrong)… In 2005, there were ten Israelis, five from Beit Shean and five from Netanyah, who lived with our middle schoolers’ families, went tobogganing with their adopted “siblings” and who cried at the airport until we peeled them away from their American “parents”. This year, another ten Israeli eighth graders descended upon our school and our homes and our classes – and ever so slightly began to bridge the gap between the Golah and Israel.

Three years, forty new friends and hundreds of changed relationships later, I’m more convinced than ever that this program – the ORT Lipson International Student Program – is worth every headache (there are a few) and every dollar (more than a few) it takes. We’ve tweaked and altered and modified since our first experiment in cross-cultural bonding. We discovered that what we were told about English language facility was a bit exaggerated, and we had to rush to find an ESL teacher. We learned that too many centralized evening programs were… too many – and that, oddly enough, too few were, yes, too few. We gradually developed a very realistic picture for our prospective host families about expectations (in terms of time, schlepping and finances); and we were able to persuade our faculty that having six or eight or even ten new students in class, for five weeks in the middle of the school year wasn’t that disruptive to their classes.

We also were reminded about presumptions – they’re not healthy (and truth to tell, even more embarrassing for educators). Argentineans are, as a rule, far more comfortable than Midwesterners about physicality (read: they hug a lot – parents, adopted parents, younger siblings). To them, Americans were aloof – to the extent that they wondered if it was something they did or said. And to our adopting parents, who opened up their homes and their lives, they couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Cultural relativism was clearly one of the learning by-products of the program. Since that first year, we understood that preparing visitors and adopting families for the “little” differences was essential.

Another vignette from the first year: Cleveland is fortunate to have a shlicha “attached to the schools, and one of the units we asked her to prepare was a course on Tzahal (the IDF – Israeli Defense Force). The heart of the lesson was to understand and appreciate the role of the army in Israel, as a social equalizer and a step toward Zionist fulfillment – as much as an obvious means for security and for national protection, she added a new twist, putting our 12- and 13-year olds through their paces, marching and going through “basic training.”

The American students got into it – and the Argentineans ran out of the room.

We ended up doing a semi-impromptu values clarification exercise, with Argentinean, Israeli and American students and teachers reacting to military-related words and images and concepts. The words with which the Americans described the military: power, pride, strength (remember this is on the heels of going into Baghdad); the Argentineans came up with fear, fascist and anti-Semitic. And the Israelis (OK, and some of the rest of us, silently mouthing the same words): Jewish identity, Zionism, family, brother.

All Jews. All reacting to ostensibly the same images and concepts – yet all reacting differently because of our radically different backgrounds and contexts. The Argentineans’ army was an instrument of an anti-Semitic government; Jews were disproportionately amongst the “disappeared” – and they legitimately feared anyone in uniform. American suburban Jews, who to a person didn’t know and would likely never know someone personally in uniform, only echoed what they knew from the then-favorable news accounts. And Israelis saw uniforms in general, and Israeli uniforms in particular as something they see every day – something very personal. It was a great teaching moment.

We prepped our teachers and our families and the school itself – it helped, and of course it didn’t help at all (that first year). Now, after three years, families understand what’s expected of them, teachers know that for four weeks things will be different. The upshot? Families keeping in touch with their adopted son/daughter through e-mails and phone calls (anyone write letters anymore?). A couple of face-to-face meetings “in the middle” (evidently Epcot Center is smack dab in the middle of Buenos Aries and Cleveland). And our eighth grade trip in the spring now deters to the home city of our adopted Israeli students – which partially closes that loop.

Here’s a bonus from the program: since I came to wintry Ohio, I started yakking to anyone within earshot of a program in which our students would live with Israeli families, developing even closer ties to the Land and People. I pretty much threw the idea on the back burner, thinking it’d take a little longer to develop the home-grown core constituency. Two days ago at a debriefing meeting of host parents, the idea bubbled up from them, organically and naturally. We’re now talking about tacking on two weeks prior to the eighth grade trip, during which time we’ll match our students with Israeli counterparts. It might not be for everyone (it’ll take some time to weave it seamlessly into the culture) – but it’s absolutely and directly attributable to the program over the last three years. Call it a sea change – or a paradigm shift – or just call it really, really good stuff. These programs are transformational.

Lots of time and energy and not a few dollars are required to make it work. Initially, it’ll demand hours and focus from Heads and administrative support and chief lay leadership. Forget the payoff in terms of PR and good will (both of which are huge and tangible); leave aside the community relations, partner-building aspects with other institutions and the Federation (very real, very – very – beneficial to the school). And for the moment, don’t focus on the implicit statement it makes about your school: that we take risks, that we can do something different and exciting.

I’d do it all over again, in a heartbeat, for the other reasons. We can talk about klal Yisrael until we’re blue in the face – but putting it into action makes it come alive. To teach about Israel to middle schoolers becomes developing a relationship with Israel – when an Israeli student their age lives in their home. On a very human, very adolescent level, they see that they wear the same jeans, listen to much of the same music and have similar family tree stories – if they go back far enough. At the same time, they might see that growing up Jewish in the free and insular Midwest is very, very different from what their new brothers and sisters experience in Argentina, where Jews have a dramatically different public profile. They learn that they both have a different perspective from that of their Israeli counterparts.

The details are the easy part. We happen to benefit from terrific communal partners in our local American ORT chapter, and there’s now a fair amount of wisdom generated from some of the glorious mistakes we’ve all made over the first few years of the program. It takes extra money and extra time and extra energy – and the payoff is in an invigorated school, a programmatic opportunity second-to-none and positive community visibility that no amount of money could buy.

But the really important part is that this is a program that absolutely changes lives and transforms the Jewish world, one relationship at a time.

Jerry D. Isaak-Shapiro is the Head of School at The Agnon School in Beachwood, OH and a mentor in Project SuLaM. Jerry can be reached at isaak-shapiro@agnon.org

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