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October 10, 2017 4:42 pm

School Exchange Program Fosters Israel-Diaspora Bonds

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Yahel Lotan (right), principal of the Maoz Maccabim School in Israel, works with students at the Hillel Community School in Rochester, N.Y., as part of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s School Twinning Program. Photo: Hillel Community School. – When two little girls got the chance to read a book together — across a gap of more than 6,000 miles — it represented just the beginning of a new relationship.

Six months after they first saw each other on a computer screen, Leora, who lives in Rochester, New York, and Yemima, who lives in Modi’in, Israel, got the chance to play together on a Mediterranean beach.

“They just went off happily together from the first moment they met,” says Leora’s mom, Gitana Mirochnik, who set up the playdate during a family trip to Israel. “They had an absolutely wonderful time together.”

“She was nice, and we played,” recalls Leora. “It was Passover, and they even had potato bagels at the restaurant.”

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It’s not often that children linked together via the Jewish Agency for Israel’s School Twinning Program get a chance to meet face-to-face. But even when that isn’t possible, thousands of Jewish kids in the Diaspora are getting the chance to form enduring friendships with their Israeli peers who live an ocean — and a culture — away.

For Leora and the other kindergartners at the Hillel Community School in Rochester, it began when they read Suzanne Berry’s Under the Same Moon, while Yemima and her classmates in Israel read it as well. According to Mirochnik, the fact that the book teaches that no matter how far people may be from each other, the same moon smiles down on all, was not lost on the youngsters.

Indeed, bringing Jewish kids from around the world close to their Israeli peers is the raison d’être of the “Twinning Program.”

The Twinning Program is the flagship program of the Jewish Agency’s Partnership2Gether (P2G) Peoplehood initiative, which pairs 450 Jewish and Israeli communities worldwide — and has some 350,000 participants. P2G’s goal is coalescing Israel and the rest of the Jewish world into a family, whose members understand, appreciate and support one other.

The program’s concept of school twinning began informally two decades ago. Now, thanks to the influx of Skype, email and video conferencing, the program shrinks the miles for all ages — from preschoolers to high schoolers — in 700 schools on six continents, with shared learning activities designed to break down the barriers of distance, language and culture.

“It’s amazing how different each pairing is,” says Merav Shany, director of the Global School Twinning Network. “From two school cultures, they create a new one in creative and surprising ways.”

The magic begins with a deep connection between the educators, who often travel to work on the curriculum together, face-to-face. “They bring this bond into the classroom,” says Shany. “The kids share their activities over dinner, exciting the whole family, and soon their communities become change agents.”

Esti Dei, who teaches English at the Madaim School in Ashkelon, Israel, and oversees five pairings between her city and a programs in Baltimore, says that “more than just having new friends, we’re building strong connections.” Shared projects include family trees, a cookbook of family dishes, a personalized bencher (an after-meal prayer booklet) and lighting Hanukkah candles together via Skype.

Six years ago, Gal Langford of Mateh Yehuda and his sixth-grade class celebrated a Skype Passover seder with South African teens. “We sang ‘Mah Nishtanah’ together,” he recalls. “It was awesome.” Langford remains close to several of the South Africans, having visited with them in both countries.

Although the program was designed to open the eyes of Diaspora Jews to Israeli life, the appeal for Israeli kids has also been wonderful, according to teacher Howie Gordon, whose involvement with the program reaches back 10 years, with a pairing between his kibbutz in Mateh Yehuda and a Jewish school in his native South Africa. That program has since ballooned to 22 schools on both sides.

“Connecting to their Jewish cousins a world away expands Israelis’ worldview, and creates a strong bond with Jewish kids wherever they live,” he says.

As 12-year-old Lior Chertkov of the Madaim School in Rechovot, Israel, recently told Dei, “This is my only chance to get to know my Jewish friend from Baltimore. I wait every week to see Moshe and write him a letter. I hope we will meet soon.”

Such responses from kids are music to the organizers’ ears. “The Jewish Agency’s School Twinning Network is a vital program to expose youngsters to Israel through personal, one-on-one connections and vice versa,” says Natan Sharansky, chairman of the executive for the Jewish Agency, adding that the organization “remains an indispensable channel for conversation and cooperation between Israel and the Jewish world.” He says that “we are proud to be fostering this integral relationship from such an early age.”

Although the twinning program runs through high school, that concept of “early age” is key, says Shany.

“[If we start early,] being part of the Jewish people becomes an identity,” she says. “And their parents get involved from the start. They are the Jewish future, so we need to connect Israeli kids with their cousins around the world.”

Following the girls’ day on the beach, the mothers of Leora and Yemima have become Facebook friends. “In fact,” Mirochnik says, “I saw she posted a picture of her daughter, and I wrote back, saying ‘Leora has that same exact dress!’”

“We’re more alike than we realize,” says Gordon. “When Jewish children from the other side of the globe get to know each other, there is an understanding and bond you can actually see.”

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