Hands across Oakland
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Hands across Oakland

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Students at the two schools investigated each other’s cultures. gbds

Fifth-grader Samantha Rigante of Wyckoff thought it was really fun.

“I liked when they came to our school and painted a mural,” said Samantha, a student at the Gerrard Berman Solomon Schechter Day School in Oakland. “I also enjoyed their dancing and singing.”

“The boys did a dance from an island in North Japan,” said seventh-grader Josh Blecherman of Wayne, who clearly enjoyed both the artistic presentation and the game of scooter hockey shared by the Schechter students and their visitors from the New Jersey Japanese School, also in Oakland. “We also showed them how to write in Torah text.”

Students from the two schools have met two times so far – once at each school – enjoying activities planned by teachers Rabbi Richard Isaacs and Yuichi Shikanai.

According to Kumiko Kitada, the office manager for the 20-year-old Japanese school, the cultural exchange program began to take shape last year, after she spoke with Mayor Linda Schwager of Oakland.

“We were looking for a school to make an exchange with, and the mayor introduced us to the Gerrard Berman School, also in Oakland,” Ms. Kitada said.

Together with school principal Takaharu Fukuzawa, Kitada visited the Schechter school to meet with Robert Smolen, its head of school.

“We talked about it and discussed what we could do,” Ms. Kitada said. “We were impressed by the education there and explained what we do at our school.”

The New Jersey Japanese School, underwritten by the Japanese government, educates students whose parents are working in the United States, generally for one to three years. Teachers also come from Japan for several years, offering an educational program identical to the one offered at home, so students can readjust easily when they return.

After the heads of the two schools signed off on the exchange project, it was handed over to coordinators Rabbi Isaacs and Ms. Kitada, who decided that the visits – initially involving only the middle schools of both educational institutions – should include both physical activities and academic experiences.

“For the first visit” – during the fall – “the Jewish students came to our school,” Ms. Kitada said, noting that her students, including some 25 youngsters from seventh through ninth grades, showed the visitors how to write their names using Japanese calligraphy. During the second visit – which took place at Schechter on January 14 – the host students reciprocated, showing their guests how to write their names in Hebrew.

Ms. Kitada is looking forward to future exchanges and says she hopes the schools’ third-graders will have a chance to meet in the very near future.

“Our students had a great time,” she said. “They were so excited to learn Hebrew.” She pointed out that even before the two visits, students at both schools had been given pen pals.

“They picked out their partners and wrote to each other,” she said. “It made it very special for them.”

“Being in America, these Japanese students need to learn about American culture and Jewish culture,” she said. “When they return to Japan, they can utilize this experience in their future careers.”

“Our students had a blast,” she added. “We hope to keep this going as long as we can and really appreciate the cooperation of the Jewish school.”

For his part, Schechter’s head of school is delighted with the program so far.

“Their school is only two miles away from us,” Mr. Smolen said. But if distance is no obstacle, language is a bit more of a challenge, “since they don’t all speak English, including the principal and half the staff.”

Nevertheless, with the help of those who do – they always are on hand to translate when necessary – the two groups have been able to communicate.

“They have a great curiosity about Jewish religious schools in the American culture, what we study and focus on,” Mr. Smolen said. “Both of our religions are steeped in history, tradition, and practice.”

During his visit to the Japanese school in the fall, he, in turn, looked at what the Japanese children studied, noting, for example, their approach to music and art.

“Calligraphy and Japanese writing are a piece of that program,” he said. “Japanese [calligraphy] has three variations. There are a lot of symbols flying around.”

It’s not surprising, then, that when his 30 or so students were teaching their Japanese counterparts how to write in Hebrew, “They could write better than I could. Their ability to write different characters was fluent.”

Mr. Smolen said that so far, the visits have not been “language-based.” One included extreme Frisbee, while the other offered scooter hockey. (According to Dr. Smolen, students roll around on four-wheeled scooters to play hockey, ensuring that each has the same ability to move around.) The first visit also included a small ceremony and an exchange of gifts, featuring spokespeople from both schools.

“Our goal is cultural exchange,” he said. “Both of us are Western-type societies, but we’re not familiar with each other’s culture.”

He noted, for example, that while both cultures stress the importance of standards and observances, they may differ in what they consider important and what is expected of people.

Mr. Smolen said that in addition to planning a third-grade event, he hopes to invite students from the Japanese school to Schechter’s field day in June. Citing the kind of “kid-to-kid behavior” that takes place during sporting events, he suggested that there might be more of an opportunity for the students to share language then.

He said his students have been very interested in the exchange program.

“They’re thinking about it,” he said, noting that when the Japanese students visited GBDS, they did two ceremonies, unveiling a 10-foot calligraphy picture and performing a dance piece about a fishing village in Japan.

“You could have heard a pin drop,” Mr. Smolen said. “They were very reflective. When we had a wrap-up session, they had many different ideas. They didn’t expect the kids to use [Japanese hip-hop music] in the dance,” and they were intrigued by the poetry and dance moves.

Calling their attitude “respectful,” he said his students “began to soak it in… the fact that there is an entirely different race that they’re not familiar with on the other side of the globe.”

Smolen said the exchange program “broadens their awareness of cultures [around] the world. It’s a big world – diverse, extending beyond Bergen County – and this is one piece they’re not familiar with. It’s a window on the world. They get to learn that it’s not just Judaism that is enriched by tradition and steeped in a background of family respect and observance.”

Seventh-grader Josh said he liked the calligraphy class at the Japanese school and learned that the Japanese bow when they say hello. But he was surprised to find that many of the Japanese students did not know much English.

“I thought that they’d be more on the American side, with Japanese roots,” he said.

Still, he thinks the program is valuable.

“It’s pretty important to have some sort of social experience with people who are different, to be comfortable with other people.”

Sixth-grader Maya Wasserman from Bergenfield said she enjoyed the Frisbee game at the Japanese school. In addition, she said, “figuring out their names in Hebrew and writing it was something special.”

Unlike Josh, the 12-year-old was surprised to find some Japanese students who spoke English.

“I thought they would just speak Japanese,” she said, noting that ultimately, most communication was done with hands and facial expressions.

“It was kind of fun,” she said. “Since we did this, they now know people from America and we know people from Japan. If they move back and we keep in touch, we can see them when we visit there.”

“I learned that even though people are from different races or cultures, we are still the same,” she said. “We do the same things.”

Fifth-grader Samantha said that at both visits, her partner spoke English, “but my friend’s partner didn’t so my partner translated.”

“You need to learn to appreciate other people’s cultures,” she said.

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