Last month the school I run came alive with energy as 40 sixth-graders got to know 25 of their Israeli peers. They came together and discussed a Holocaust novel they had all read, did drama activities and an art project that grappled with what it means to be a leader, and participated in a workshop on tallit and tefillin with our school rabbi.
One of my yearly highlights as a Jewish educator is watching as my students learn and forge new friendships with students from a suburban Tel Aviv school via an exchange program run by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles as part of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership 2000 program. That’s why I was so disappointed by a recent decision by Israel’s Ministry of Education striking a grave blow to a program that has brought together thousands of young people from Israel and the Diaspora.
Earlier this month, the ministry’s director-general, Shimshon Shoshani, announced that beginning next year, Israeli students will be prohibited, when their schools are in session, from going on Jewish Agency exchange delegations to Jewish schools abroad. Israeli students would still be allowed to go on exchanges during vacation periods, but Israeli school vacations often coincide with Jewish holy days or with times American schools are also on break, making such arrangements impractical in many instances.
According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, Shoshani dismissed claims that such trips instill values in Israeli elementary school students. “Anyone who says this is full of it, and I say this as a former director-general of the Jewish Agency,” he said.
The decision comes as the Education Ministry is attempting to maximize hours of instruction in Israel’s school system, which has been grappling with concerns about student achievement.
While Israel certainly needs to address academic concerns, the decision strikes a major blow to Israeli-Diaspora Jewish relations. Last academic year, in Los Angeles alone, 258 Israeli students visited Los Angeles schools through the program, while 291 students from L.A. traveled to Israel. Many more students across the country participated in similar exchanges.
The partnership between my school, the Pressman Academy, and the Magen School has built strong relationships between families; exposed
the Israeli families to pluralistic, open-minded Jewish worship and ritual; and seeded the foundation of a lifelong relationship with the Jewish state for my students. Each year, our sixth-graders go to Israel to visit the Magen students for 10 days, and their Israeli peers come to Los Angeles for the same amount of time.
When students from the Magen School visited the Pressman Academy this year, the itinerary included the study of sacred Jewish texts on leadership, social action projects and opportunities to experience how non-Orthodox Jewish communities outside of Israel live a meaningful life rooted in Jewish ritual and connected to the modern world. The overall partnership is a shining example of how Jews in Israel and the United States can learn about being Jewish from each other.
The impact of this program can be seen in the introduction of a Kabbalat Shabbat service in the Magen School community, the joining of students from our two schools to celebrate their bar and bat mitzvahs, the desire each year on the part of Magen students to not only participate in prayer services with our students, but to purchase prayer books to take back to Israel, and in the constant exchange of e-mails and instant messages that cross cyberspace weeks, months and years after the exchanges take place.
Of course, there are ways that the exchanges can be improved. The Education Ministry has noted that some students get left behind, and has cited the fact that parents were being asked to pay for the trips (though sponsors, such as the L.A. Federation, have also made subsidies available). These are legitimate issues for discussion.
Yet the Education Ministry apparently made its announcement without first creating a committee to study the exchange or making a serious effort to learn about its benefits. Indeed, it appears that the ministry’s director-general was not even aware that Israeli elementary schools were participating in the exchange program until an earlier Haaretz article reported on its existence. “We did not know about the elementary school delegations,” Shoshani later told Haaretz.
It is a shame that a program that connects Israeli and American Jews in such a strong way, and that has planted the seeds of a meaningful relationship between our two communities over the past 12 years, will be a casualty of an uninformed bureaucracy. Our people, and our youth, deserve better.
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus is head of school of the Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.