Bergen County Technical Schools’ Superintendent Howard Lerner joined 16 Bergen Academies students and three faculty members on a February 16-23 fact-finding and collaboration-building mission to Israel. The trip was based on the common educational language of STEM — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
The group visited hotbeds of innovation including the Weizmann Institute of Science, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (often referred to as Israel’s MIT), and Google’s Tel Aviv campus, as well as high-tech company Applied Materials, an Air Force base, World ORT’s YOU-niversity afterschool innovation learning center, and high schools excelling in STEM. (They also saw more standard tourist sites — Jerusalem’s Old City, Rosh Hanikra, Ein Gedi, Masada, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and a Druze village.
The trip was planned and sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
Ethan Behling, the interim director of the federation’s Center for Israel Engagement, accompanied the group. He said it made perfect sense to connect administrators, educators, and STEM students from Bergen Academies with peers in Israel.
“We showed them Israel in a nonpolitical way, through an itinerary covering major sites and the high-tech sector,” Mr. Behling said on the last night of the trip. “The kids were so open-minded and curious; at every site they absorbed all the nuances and saw the ambition and growth of Israel’s high-tech sector and its relevance to the global economy.”
Mark Tronicke, coordinator for global education for Bergen County Academies — a seven-division public magnet high school in Hackensack — explained that the academies already have built sister-school relationships in countries such as Japan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Argentina, Greece, and England, encompassing visits and common curriculum themes.
At the suggestion of the JFNNJ, two Bergen Academies teachers went on a professional development excursion to Israel last year “to examine the technology and entrepreneurial spirit of Israel.” They returned eager to establish a relationship with the award-winning Shechakim High School for Excellence and Leadership in Nahariya, the federation’s Partnership2Gether (P2G) city in northern Israel. In September, nine Shechakim students — all of them from the school’s corps of Air Force cadets — visited Bergen Academies and other Bergen County schools and shuls on a trip arranged by the Center for Israel Engagement.
Getting reacquainted with teens from Nahariya and meeting others in Tel Aviv was a highlight for Michelle Lee of Old Tappan, 16, a Bergen Academies junior in the school’s engineering track.
“Initially my interest in coming here was to share my research project in wireless radiation detection with students in Israel,” she said. “I even met a student in Tel Aviv with similar interests and projects — someone literally halfway across the world learning the same things as me — and we plan on doing collaborations in the future.”
Describing Israel as “beautifully complex,” Ms. Lee said that her “initial spark of interest was totally trumped by all I learned on this trip. One of the most breathtaking sights was on top of Masada. It gave me a new perspective on how diverse and beautiful Israel is. Prior to this trip I’d only seen not necessarily the most positive images of Israel on the news and social media.”
Susan Penn, chair of JFNNJ’s Partnership2Gether, said that she and her committee have coordinated many delegations of young leaders, medical professionals, artists, educators, first responders, attorneys, businesswomen, and other professional groups to Nahariya in order to forge ties between the two communities.
“I am especially excited about this exchange because it is the partnership’s largest educational delegation to date and our first collaboration with non-Jewish as well as Jewish students and teachers, and because it is focused solely on high-tech education,” she said.
“The Bergen Academies is a natural fit because its student body is highly selective and these ‘best and brightest’ met with equally brilliant students in Israel. All of our young leadership trips to Israel are eye-opening because they enable the students to sense and feel Israel firsthand, but for these kids to see it through the lens of science and technology could ignite their passions and have a life-changing impact.”
David Goodman of Paramus, a JFNNJ vice president, was pleased when his daughter Miri, a Bergen Academies sophomore, was chosen to participate.
“I see federation as not just a Jewish communal organization but also as a connector organization that can provide opportunities for people who may not have Israel on their agenda,” he said shortly before the journey.
“This was a wonderful opportunity to bring young people to Israel, especially to see the amazing technology and science that’s going on. My daughter is a Schechter graduate and has been in Israel twice before, but this time she will see it through the eyes of people who aren’t Jewish, which I think is fantastic, and I applaud all the parents whose children are going.”
Ben Costa, 17, of Wyckoff, was another Jewish delegation member. “I’ve grown up learning about Israel my entire life but it was an abstract concept and now I see it as a tangible place,” he said. “When I entered the Old City on our first day, I was overwhelmed.
“The Western Wall was my favorite part of the entire experience. I’m not extremely religious, but culturally I feel very connected and going up to that wall I was overcome with a feeling of being part of something bigger than myself.”
He enjoyed connecting with students at Shechakim, who like all Israeli teens will begin mandatory military service after graduation.
“The idea of going into the army right after high school is a foreign concept,” Mr. Costa said. “Meeting the cadets gave us better idea of how they think about it. They’re very patriotic and it was really quite amazing. But they’re kids just like us. I’m going home with a greater understanding of what Israel really means; its people and its culture.”
Superintendent Lerner also had never visited Israel before. It was his first overseas trip as administrator.
“I really wanted to join the students to see what they would learn from the educational and cultural experience in Israel,” he said. “I was also making connections with different high schools and colleges to see the science that goes on here in Israel and to see if we can collaborate and innovate together.
“Our mission as a school district is to live, work and lead in a global community,” he continued. “We encourage international trips and have had interactions with other high schools around the globe and want to add to that some of the people and institutions we met here in Israel.”
One likely collaboration will be with the Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute and Cornell Tech Campus, a joint program between the Ivy League university and the Technion, housed at Google New York until the opening of its campus on New York City’s Roosevelt Island this summer.
“Our students do internships every Wednesday during senior year, so we want to hook some of them up with Cornell,” Dr. Lerner said. “We also exchanged emails and phone numbers with some of the high school principals we met, and maybe we’ll come up with ideas to do research together.”
Mercedes Hadad, the P2G pedagogical coordinator in Israel, said she hopes Dr. Lerner’s participation in the trip “may open other doors for us to other Bergen County schools.”
Federation-sponsored trips such as these, she said, “give students an extensive appreciation of what Israel has to offer in today’s focus on high-tech education” and affords an opportunity to “see the living, breathing democracy that Israel is.
“We hope to continue our relationship with Bergen Academies because there is a lot of potential for partnerships,” said Mr. Behling, who is planning a follow-up meeting with the participating students.
The other students on the trip were Liam Rahav, Ishan Khosla, Irmak Sensoz, Nicole Gerzon, Ronnie Millet, Ben Mor, Charles Tang, Michael Grossman, Jefferson Xu, Jared Lawrence, Danny Yim, Antonia Liu, and Sowmya Patarati. The accompanying faculty members were Mr. Tronicke, David Wilson, and Alison Belkin.