Cultural Exchange Helps Classes Broaden Their Borders

By Ross Schneiderman

Published August 08, 2003, issue of August 08, 2003.
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Two Jewish day schools – in different countries, speaking different languages — will launch a cross-cultural exchange this fall that administrators hope will lead to a growing friendship between their two communities.

In September, students at the Westchester-Fairfield Hebrew Academy in Greenwich, Conn., and the Jaim Weitzman School in Buenos Aires will begin writing to each other and examining the similarities and differences between their respective schools and countries.

Tzipora Gabay, head of the Weitzman School, told the Forward in an e-mail that the objective of the collaboration is “to exchange customs and traditions with Jews in other countries.”

The “sister schools,” as a press release from the Hebrew Academy described them, decided to start working together after Argentina’s economic crisis began several years ago. Last year, Jane Weitzman, chair of the Latin America committee of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, invited Hebrew Academy administrators to see the perilous situation that arose following the country’s economic collapse.

Nan Levy, vice president of the board of trustees at the Hebrew Academy, became the school’s first ambassador to the Argentine institution, presenting a card signed by the students in Connecticut and a suitcase filled with school supplies.

“They couldn’t have been more warm and eager to receive us,” Levy said. “They had a whole coffee reception, and we just got to know each other during that visit.”

According to Gabay, during that meeting and subsequent conversations, “we informed each other about the characteristics of the schools and our missions [and] we exchanged lesson plans.”

The partnership, which involves students in kindergarten through sixth grade, is mostly educational. “This is not a financial venture for us,” said Nora Sohn, headmaster of the Hebrew Academy. “What I foresee is a really beautiful friendship starting between our two schools.”

Sohn mentioned, however, that the Hebrew Academy will be sponsoring some programs for its Argentinean counterpart, including one in which the Hebrew Academy parents’ association will purchase a lulav and etrog for every class during Sukkot. “Down there, they might not have that opportunity,” said Sohn, a native of Peru. “My roots are in Latin America, and I know of the devastation that has come to those communities.”

Students will also begin letter correspondences as part of what school administrators call a “World Jewish Civilizations Curriculum.”

“The children will be able to write cards including basic personal information and brief descriptions of Jewish festivals and will share how they ought to feel proud to be Jews,” Gabay said. “We want our students to pass through this profound and growing experience.”

Sohn said: “This is how they’re learning all subjects, with the overlying theme of world Jewish civilization.”

If the cultural exchange is intended to bring Americans and Argentineans closer together, one major barrier remains: language. Although students at the Weitzman School are learning English, the Hebrew Academy does not plan to teach its students Spanish as part of the program.

“It may happen as a byproduct, but that’s not the primary goal of it,” Sohn said. “But who knows, a year from now? It would be a great thing to happen.” Sohn added that, in the meantime, she will be able to translate the correspondences.

“The language is not an obstacle,” Gabay said. “There are coordinators and professors that are able to help the students be able to express themselves in English and Hebrew.”

The collaboration between the two schools marks the inauguration of the Hebrew Academy’s middle school; the Connecticut school — with an enrollment of 80 students starting in kindergarten — will include sixth grade for the first time this year, and subsequently add the seventh and eighth grades over the next two years. The coming school year also marks the implementation of new curriculum models based on the partnership with the school in Buenos Aires, as well as the Shalom Hartman Institute, an Israeli education think tank located in Jerusalem. The school is unaffiliated with any specific branch of Judaism and, according to its Web site, “draws students from all major branches and embraces the values of mutual respect and Klal Yisrael — the unity of the Jewish people.”

The Weitzman School is affiliated with Conservative Judaism and is located in the same building as a Conservative synagogue. According to Gabay, it comprises a preschool with 165 students and a primary school with 240 students between the ages of 6 and 13.

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