HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Two Trips - One Vision: Eighth Graders Explore the US and Israel

TOPICS : Israel

Jewish identity, immigration, tolerance, democracy, and Jewish history are all themes that were explored first-hand this fall by the eighth graders at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, California. On October 30, twenty-five students of the Class of 2006 departed on El Al Flight 106 for two weeks as members of Heschel’s Tel Aviv/Los Angeles delegation. Accompanied by five teachers and three parents, the next two weeks were spent making new friends at the AD Gordon School in Tel Aviv, learning about Israeli life both past and present, and discussing and exploring issues relating to Jews in both Israel and around the world.

The following morning on Monday, October 31, thirty-two other members of Heschel’s eighth grade boarded a plane to the East Coast where they spent the next ten days exploring similar themes in their own country. The trip consisted of travel to Washington DC, Philadelphia, and New York.

In that Heschel was offering two study/travel opportunities to the same group of students, we needed to develop a protocol that would allow students some say in which trip they would take part while allowing the school the freedom to place students into an appropriate group that would meet their needs and capacities. Students filled out a “letter of intent” the spring of their 7th grade year, indicating which trip would be their first choice. They needed to craft a short essay explaining what they thought they would get out of the trip. Group interviews focused students on questions of their learning goals and their self-assessment of the capacity to function in a traveling group, far away from home. At the same time, the administration worked with teachers to assess individual work habits and student behaviors. We examined how students functioned in group activities, levels of required adult intervention, and degrees of maturity and independence.

The Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership, a program of The Jewish Federation, represents a relationship between the Jewish communities of two incredible cities, one in Israel and the other in the Diaspora. Since 2000, Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School has been fortunate to be “twinned” with the AD Gordon School in Tel Aviv. The “twinning” relationship includes an annual visit from the Heschel students to Israel in the fall and a reciprocal visit by the Gordon students to Los Angeles in March. The exchanges include home stays with families and a division of time between the school and travel to various sites in Israel and Los Angeles. This year in Israel the students participated in joint curricular projects such as Yom Gibush, an outdoor bonding day, Project Mitzvah, a joint seminar on Jewish identity, and a shabbaton in Jerusalem. The Heschel students spent several days traveling to Massada, swimming in the Dead Sea, exploring the beauty of Galil, the Kinneret, Tiberias, and in Jerusalem spending memorable time at Yad Vashem and the Kotel. Throughout the two weeks they built lifelong friendships with the Gordon students as they shared typical teenage experiences.

The number of students who can participate in the partnership exchange is always limited since “hosting” is such an integral part of the family stays. In past years Heschel has offered two trips during the course of the eighth grade. Depending on the year, thirteen to thirty-two students participated in the Israel trip in the fall, and then all the eighth graders attended the Washington DC trip in the spring. This presented a number of challenges which included tremendous financial burdens (two trips for some of the students) as well as difficulties in maintaining curriculum, staffing, and continuity. As a result our vision was to provide a meaningful experience for all the students at the beginning of their final year at Heschel, building on prior learning and allowing for continued shared dialogue relating to common themes throughout the school year. We came up with these two amazing opportunities that have many shared experiences and at the same time offer a number of differences.

The alternate trip to the East Coast included the traditional Washington DC trip that took the students to the seat of our government. In Washington, the sites included a Capitol tour and a meeting with our Congressman, Brad Sherman, the Holocaust Museum, various monuments and the Smithsonian Museums. For Shabbat we traveled to Philadelphia where we experienced a shabbaton at Hillel on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The Shabbat experience at Penn allowed the students flexibility to attend a minyan of their choice. We also met with several Heschel alumni who are current Penn students. They spoke with the students about their Jewish college experience and answered many of their questions. From Philadelphia we traveled to New York once again keeping in mind our themes of immigration, Jewish identity, and history as we explored Ellis Island, the Lower East Side and the Tenement Museum, Borough Park, the Jewish Museum and the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The sights and sounds of New York were also highlights of the trip with a tour of the United Nations, Ground Zero, the Empire State Building, ice skating at Rockefeller Center, Times Square, and a Broadway favorite, Fiddler on the Roof. Throughout the trip students stayed in hotels and were accompanied by teachers at all times.

Notebooks and curricular materials were prepared for all the students. Students documented their reflections and emotions in journals. Assignments included the taking of photographs and the collection of artifacts that were meaningful to each student’s experience. Upon everyone’s safe return on November 14 the dialogue began; students shared their experiences and analyzed the similarities and differences between the cities, culture, and people. The students were then challenged to create, select, and describe in a single photograph, the “essence” of their destination. The inspiration for this project grew from the word synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa.

The projects of the students who participated in the Tel Aviv/Los Angeles Partnership delegation to Israel are currently on display through March 5 at The Finegood Gallery in the Federation Building at the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills, California. The work of students who went on our first-ever East Coast trip is on exhibit throughout the Heschel campus, honoring Presidents’ Day and the history of our country.

In March, Heschel welcomes the AD Gordon students into our homes to reciprocate the experience. Students from both trips will have the opportunity to host students and participate in partnership activities.

A few final notes: This 2-trip model works in part because of how we prepare students, and in part because of how we prepare staff and parents. The students have input into the decision-making process, must study and prepare in advance, and are required to bring what they learn back to school. This not only heightens student learning, but increases our school presence in the community. Teachers, both those who travel with the class and those who stay back, are engaged in the planning and re-integration process to ensure that the learning of the trip has meaning before and after the actual travel. Parents participate not only as fund raisers, but also as decision-makers, chaperones, and later, ambassadors from the school to our larger community, promoting the excellent travel experience as a benchmark of the school’s overall commitment to excellence.

Betty Winn in the Head of School at the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, CA and a participant in Project SuLaM. Betty can be reached at betty_winn@ajhds.com

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