Some kids start out life with lots of things stacked up against them — and then lots of other things in their favor.
As Cantor Anna Zhar of Temple Beth Sholom of New City learned, the children at Yohana Jabotinsky, a government-funded boarding school in Rechovot, Israel, are disadvantaged. Many of them are immigrants; most who were born in Israel are the children of parents who were not. Many start at the high school with the problems that growing up in poverty often confer. Many did not speak Hebrew when they started at the school.
But the thing about the school is that it’s for talented kids. It’s near the Weizmann Institute, looks for academically gifted 13- to 18-year-old students, and nurtures their analytic gifts and scientific ability. It also seeks out teenagers who are gifted in music and in the visual arts, and it allows them — and their talents — to learn, to grow, even to flourish.
The students have made aliyah from all around the world — from Russia, other European countries, Ethiopia, Morocco — Cantor Zhar said. The school does very good work, she added.
She learned about Yohana Jabotinsky when she was in Israel for a family wedding. (She officiated at the wedding, her first Reform wedding in Israel; a fascinating experience but another story, she said.) One of the relatives in her niece’s new family, an Israeli ambassador, took her to the school. “It has about 900 students, and each child has a story,” she said. “Not necessarily a happy story — they were not all coming from happy childhoods. But the school gives them a chance to flourish and it nurtures their talents, so it gives them a chance to have a great life in Israel.”
She saw one of the school’s concerts. “They were doing a Broadway-style show, with their own sets, that they made, and they wrote the whole play” — that’s including book, music, and lyrics — “and they performed it. It was amazing. It was unbelievable.
“So I was sitting in the backyard with my brother and my niece and our new relatives, after the concert, thinking about how we could help these kids, and if we could bring them to the United States,” Cantor Zhar continued. “And then came the idea of the exchange program.”
She wanted to bring some students to New City, where they could perform for the congregation and its friends, and then complete the circle by taking some of her synagogue’s teens to Israel.
“Everyone starts with an idea, but I never thought that we could pull this one off,” she said. “There are so many exchange programs! And they all require a lot of money.”
But she pursued it — and it happened.
“We went to the ministry of tourism in Israel, and when I got back I went to all the past presidents of my congregation,” Cantor Zhar said. “I met with the rabbi, with the director of the nursery school, with the principal of the religious school. And everyone supported me.
“It was a crazy idea, but an amazing one, and they were all for it.
“We started to collect money, and we purchased tickets for nine children,” she continued. They also brought over a 19-year-old assistant teacher and a voice coach, as well as two older teachers; 12 people in all.
“They came here from April 13 to April 21, and they did their show, which they wrote themselves,” Cantor Zhar said. “They called it ‘Reset Heaven.’” It was a modern take on the creation story that begins the biblical book of Genesis, with a modern twist. Among many other changes, the story now included another day of creation, which involved the appearance of Google Translator, without which the world could not stand. “It was hilarious,” Cantor Zhar said.
The students were hosted by local Rockland families. The host families included their own teenagers, which made the guests feel more at home.
“It was one of the best experiences I have had as a cantor,” Cantor Zhar said. “I had never seen such camaraderie at the temple.”
The students gave three performances, all at Reform synagogues. One was at Beth Sholom, one at Temple Israel of the City of New York, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and one at Temple Sinai in Roslyn Heights. The second two synagogues both are huge, and both had contributed to the students’ trip.
The students also got to tour New York; they saw such prime tourist destinations as the Statue of Liberty and Times Square.
During Thanksgiving week, Beth Sholom will take its own students to Israel, along with some of their parents, as it fulfills the second part of the exchange program. “We are going to stay at the boarding school, and we are going to perform there,” Cantor Zhar said. Her students will not write their own material, she added.
“This makes everything real,” she said. “When people see the news about Israel on TV, all they see is war and the Gaza Strip. Israel is so much more than that. The idea was to bring real teenagers, and make a real connection.”
Will she do it again? She hopes so, she said, but it won’t be next year. “This was such an overwhelming program,” she said. “Our members were moved by it.” Because the workload was so formidable, and the fundraising demands so steep, though, she will need some time to regroup. She hopes that she can try again in a few years.
“I also hope that the kids can develop lifelong relationships through it,” she said. “Now, everyone is constantly on Skype with each other.
“This was a chance that the kids from Israel would never have had if we hadn’t done it. I am very proud of it.”
As for her own shul’s experience, “It was transforming,” she said simply. “It was amazing, and it really was transforming.”