Two groups of Israeli teenagers arrived in Bergen County last week with different itineraries but similar goals: to develop bonds with diaspora Jewry and help bridge the gap between Israel’s religious and nonreligious citizens.
Twelve secular and religious Israeli teenagers visited the area this week to educate their diaspora counterparts about life in Israel.
Twelve students came from Nahariya’s secular Amal School and the city’s religious girls school, Ulpanat Harel. Nahariya is the sister city of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, and through the federation system’s Partnership ‘000 program, the Jewish Agency, and UJA-NNJ.
While the teens were busy educating area students about growing up in Israel, they were learning about each other as well.
"These kids don’t get together on an everyday basis," said David Hyman, UJA-NNJ’s Israel shaliach. "It’s just the partnership with New Jersey that mixes the Orthodox and secular teens together."
The divisions of Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox are not as common in Israel as in the United States. Instead, the line is drawn between religious and secular Israelis. "The purpose of the course was to emphasize the Jewishness in all of us," said Etti Atias, one of the participating students. "That is how we can grow, to express our feelings in a better way to Jews in the diaspora."
On Sunday, the mixed group of religious and secular Israelis visited with students at the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies for a Yom HaShoah commemoration. During the week they visited the Metropolitan Schechter High School in Teaneck, the Frisch School in Paramus, and the Gerrard Berman Solomon Schechter Day School in Oakland. They told the students what it is like growing up in Israel, and looking ahead to army service or national service instead of college.
"Very often I heard the American teens asking the Israeli teens if they were scared [about joining the army]," said Machla Schaffer, UJA-NNJ’s Partnership ‘000 coordinator. "They said no because it’s something they grow up with. They’re aware they finish high school and go into the army."
The fate of the kidnapped soldiers is also very important to the students from Nahariya, which is also the home of Ehud Goldwasser, one of the two soldiers captured by Hezbollah in July. The Amal School’s student council has made it a project to speak out as much as possible about the missing soldiers.
Organizers gauged the program’s success by how it brought together the religious and nonreligious Israeli students.
"It’s had a dramatic affect on the students," said Yona Klingvasser, vice principal of the Amal School. "It’s the first time they have a mutual experience with religious students and vice versa."
The students’ conversations helped them see that they have a connection as Jews, Klingvasser continued, which was especially meaningful for the American students, many of whom have not been to Israel. The Israeli students also saw how different the Jewish experience is outside of Israel.
"They realized to be a Jew in the United States and not in Israel you have to think about it and make an effort," said Noa Epstein, the Partnership ‘000 coordinator from the Jewish Agency. "They understood how important it is to have the connection with Jews from all over."
Six 1’th-grade girls came from Ulpanat Harel, but on a different type of mission. They had been part of a twinning program with girls at the Frisch School since ninth grade. This trip marked the first time they would meet their pen pals since beginning the program, and they spent the week getting to know one another.
Bracha Dror, the teacher from Ulpanat Harel who coordinated the twinning program, said she is already making arrangements for the next group of incoming ninth-graders to start a new relationship.
"We were e-mailing for so long," said Moriah Portal, a student at Ulpanat Harel. "We finally met each other and it was so exciting."