The sixth and eighth graders of Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid in Glendale and the third and eighth graders of Nofei Arbel School in Kibbutz Ginossar, Israel were jumping and singing together on Jan. 18.
Well, kind of together.
“They had a Skype conference,” explained Lori Abramson. “The Nofei Arbel kids learned a Tu B’shvat song in English, which included lots of hand motions and jumping. By the end of the song, the kids on both sides were singing their hearts out and jumping to the song — and really, it seemed as if they were in one room together. It was great!”
Abramson works for Oranim College’s International School as the director of Jewish peoplehood programs. Part of her job is to facilitate the School Twinning Program for the Sovev-Kinneret region in northern Israel.
The School Twinning Program grew out of a program that links Israeli communities with Diaspora Jewish communities. The program, Partnership2Gether, is funded by the Jewish Agency for Israel and supported by funds from the Milwaukee Jewish Federation and other federations across the United States. Milwaukee (as well as Madison and St. Paul, Minnesota) is partnered with the Sovev-Kinneret region, which is where Kibbutz Ginossar is located.
The goal of the program is for young American Jewish students and their Israeli counterparts to learn about their similarities and differences, and hopefully form enduring bonds.
For now, the Milwaukee Jewish Day School, Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid’s School of Jewish Studies and Congregation Emanu-El of Waukesha’s religious school participate in the program.
How it got started here
“The School Twinning Program started approximately 20 years ago,” Abramson said. “Some schools have been connected for many years, and some have just begun.”
The twinning program began here about six years ago when Jennifer Saber — the education director at Beth Israel Ner Tamid — was working at Congregation Shalom in Fox Point and teaching about Israel.
“I thought a pen pal program would be really cool,” Saber said. “I called the shaliach, who at the time was Michal Peled, and she hooked me up with the School Twinning Program. I did it at Shalom for three years for the K-4 class and a middle school class.”
When Saber began working at Beth Israel, she expanded the program to include all grades. The schools in Israel that Beth Israel is paired with are Nofei Arbel School and ORT Bamaale Jr. High School in Tiberias.
Emanu-El of Waukesha began partnering with Israeli schools Mul Gilad and Ashdot Yaakov about two years ago. Students from first and fifth grades are involved. A little less than a year ago Milwaukee Jewish Day School got its fifth, sixth and eighth grade students paired with Kadourie Elementary School and Kadourie Jr. High School.
How it works
Although there are occasional real-time Skype conversations between the students, Skyping isn’t the typical way the schools communicate owing to the eight hour time difference between Central Standard Time and Israel. But thanks to technology, there are many ways the schools are able to maintain contact, such as by using WhatsApp Messenger, a free software platform that allows users to send information such as text messages, video calls, images and other media. Google Hangout, a similar technology, is also used.
Each school has its own curriculum, but the contours of the program are basically the same.
“Our kids speak in Hebrew when they can,” said Aimee Bachar, the Hebrew/Jewish studies teacher for MJDS. “At first our kids introduced themselves in Hebrew, and the Israeli kids introduced themselves in English. The second time we communicated with the Israeli school, our kids sang a Chanukah song in Hebrew and the Israeli kids sang a Chanukah song in English.”
Phil Musickant, the principal for Emanu-El’s religious school, said they’re in the formative years of the program. So far, the students send photos and messages to their Israeli counterparts.
“We post photos of our school activities, and voice recordings saying ‘Shalom.’ Our goal is to develop one-on-one relationships.”
The real-time Skype conferences are the most popular.
“Last year we Skyped at Tu B’shvat,” Musickant said. “The students loved waving at the camera so they could see each other sharing with the Israeli students. It made Israel a little less abstract and more real for the students.”
“We start off every year with an introduction letter or video,” said Saber. “Each student says their name and what they like to do. For the younger students, we do activities related to the holidays.”
Other activities have included researching Israeli cities and creating stamps for each city, which were then uploaded to Google Classroom — a learning management system for creating and distributing paperless assignments — so that their Israeli counterparts could see the stamps.
“Our kids are now researching Israeli inventions and will do a Google Slides presentation for the Israeli students,” said Saber.
Strengthening Jewish identity
In addition to the cross-cultural learning, the educators say another goal of the School Twinning Program is to create lasting relationships and strengthen American Jewish identity.
“After a school year ended a couple years ago, I found out there are two kids, one of ours and one of theirs, who communicate because of the exchange program,” said Saber. “Another time I was in Israel and an Israeli kid walked up to me and asked me about a girl named Gina that she communicated with. I had no idea that these two kids were building a relationship beyond the classroom communication.”
Abramson said the program strengthens American Jewish identity.
“This is not only what is supposed to happen — it does happen, and we see it time and time again — and it’s beautiful! In real time kids know that they are making friends who are Jewish. They know they will have someone to visit if they travel to Israel or the U.S.”
The relationships that are being forged aren’t just among the students. The teachers are also benefiting from the program.
“The teachers often communicate on a regular basis,” Abramson said.
Saber recounted a Skype session between American and Israeli teachers in which the latter asked the former about Jewish identity in America.
“We told stories about what it’s like to be Jewish in America,” Saber said. “The Israeli teachers were surprised that we had to go above and beyond to be Jewish.”
Saber said the “next dream is to do a mifgash [meeting] between our teachers and the Israeli teachers, to do some planning and some in-person curriculum writing. Our teachers could go to Israel and meet students there and Israeli teachers would come and meet our students.”