Way back when Schechter Regional High School in Teaneck was in formation, principal Rhonda Rosenheck was already scouting an Israeli school with which the New Jersey school could partner.
Now, almost four years later, the Schechter school which last year became the Metropolitan Solomon Schechter Academy, merging with the Solomon Schechter High School of New York continues to cement ties with the Amal school in Nahariya through reciprocal annual visits.
Every year, as part of a trip to Europe and Israel, Schechter students visit Nahariya, spending time with their Israeli counterparts and enjoying home hospitality. This year’s trip, involving ‘9 sophomores and three faculty members, took place Feb. 15 to ‘7.
According to Rosenheck, the trip is "wrapped around the school’s relationship with the Amal school" and stems from "the foundational belief that to love Israel, and to truly want to spend so much time learning about the country, you must be passionately connected, feel at home there, and love Israelis."
The New Jersey school sent its first delegation to Israel two years ago, said Rosenheck. Beginning this year, students will visit Nahariya first as sophomores and then again as seniors. Rosenheck said the senior year is important because it is at that point that the American and Israeli students begin to go in totally different directions. The visit "helps them sustain their friendships" during this transitional time, she said.
"We may be the only school that does two trips to Israel," said Rosenheck. "It’s very expensive and a hard sell to the board."
Nevertheless, she said expressing gratitude to the school’s board of directors and to UJA of Northern New Jersey, which helps facilitate the trips when the students come back excited about new friendships they’ve made, she is confirmed in her belief that the money is well spent.
"We want to instill the feeling, ‘I belong here,’" said Rosenheck, stressing that it should be a natural part of students’ lives to visit Israel. "I had one parent tell me, ‘You turned my daughter into a Zionist.’"
The students particularly "relish their time" in Nahariya, said Rosenheck, an opinion echoed by those who spoke with this newspaper.
Sixteen-year-old Jonathan Huberman, a Teaneck resident and sophomore at the school, said that while visits to Rome and to various Israeli cities were exciting, the Nahariya visit was the "high point of his experience." (Just before speaking with The Jewish Standard, Jonathan had been chatting with his new Israeli friends over the Internet, as had Evan Raskin of Queens, a sophomore who had gone on the trip.)
Jonathan said he was greatly affected by stories told by his host about the Israeli family’s experience during the country’s recent war with Hezbollah.
"He told about going to Jerusalem" during the war, when rockets were falling on Nahariya, said Jonathan. "When you hear about it directly, it has a big impact," he said.
While the Schechter visitors did not see much physical damage in the city a lot of it has been rebuilt, said Jonathan they did spend time in Safed cleaning up a bomb shelter.
According to the sophomore, the Nahariya visit included "a lot of ice-breakers." And, he said, since there happened to be a teachers’ strike in the city while the Schechter students were there, "it was not as structured and almost more genuine. We had many chances just to hang out with the Israeli kids and go out at night." And from those encounters, many close friendships were formed, he said.
Friendships were also strengthened among the Schechter students themselves. Over the course of the trip, the group including teens from Teaneck, Wayne, Manhattan, and Queens, said Jonathan "really got to know each other."
"We really bonded," said Evan, describing the Israel part of the trip as "totally amazing" despite the fact that he had already gone to Israel with his eighth-grade class. "The kids were great."