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Avodat Shalom students teach Israeli peers meaning of mitzvah

What can children from a River Edge Reform synagogue school teach peers in an Israeli public school? The value of tzedakah, for one.

“Giving for the sake of giving,” as Temple Avodat Shalom School Director Naomi Friedman puts it. “This is something quite foreign in Israeli public schools.”

The kids at Avodat Shalom have been interacting for five years now with fifth- and sixth-graders at the Weitzman School in Nahariya, the northern Israeli city that is twinned with North Jersey through the Partnership 2000 program of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. Weekly e-mail contact between the two groups, who tell each other about their lives and interests, culminates in a video conference where the kids, parents and teachers exchange their thoughts about the program and themselves.

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The Weitzman students interact with the Avodat Shalom students via teleconference. Ariel Zemet

The federation sponsors trips for the teachers and principals to meet in person once a year as well.

“What made this year very special was the introduction of the concept of putting the mitzvah into the bar/bat mitzvah,” said Friedman. She and her partner at Weitzman, Assistant Principal Pnina Zemet, agreed to try out this curriculum at the staunchly secular Israeli school, wanting to share something from a more Jewish angle.

To kick off the program, Zemet invited a rabbi to explain the concept of “mitzvah” (literally “commandment” but often used to connote a good deed) to the participating sixth-graders, who are chosen for their excellence in English. This was an unprecedented move on Zemet’s part, but she reports it was well received. “We see we can bring in tradition without touching the religious aspect,” she told Friedman.

The River Edge kids created a questionnaire for the Israeli children to complete with their parents in order to learn more about their parents’ bar or bat mitzvah experiences. “The idea is for them to know it’s not just the party but goes deeper than that,” Friedman said.

The Israeli administrators chose two boys from single-parent, needy families for whom the American kids could collect donations for their bar or bat mitzvah.

The idea of a “mitzvah project,” a frequent part of American bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, is not as common in Israel’s non-religious communities. The Avodat Shalom pupils explained to their Israeli counterparts that they were going to bake and sell kugels at their annual “Shtetl Fair” to raise funds for the two boys. Weitzman teachers introduced the notion “that you can give without getting a thank you, because the recipient doesn’t know who gave it,” said Friedman.

Zemet also appealed for donations to all the parents of kids involved in the program. “To my dismay, not even half the families participated,” she told this newspaper, acknowledging in an e-mail to Friedman that “the model of tzedakah is stronger among the Avodat Shalom kids. We have more to learn from you.”

Still, the combined contributions were enough to purchase gift certificates for the children to a computer store – neither has a computer at home – and there was some left over to give their mothers, too. The money from River Edge reached the Nahariya school just before the video conference between the schools, which was highlighted by a musical performance put on by several of the Israeli students.

Zemet said the reaction from parents of the 32 participants was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. “For those who are involved in this project, it strengthens the Jewish connection between them,” she said.

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