Sinai Akiba Academy and Hoover Street Elementary School are located about 9 miles apart from one another, but the distance could just as well be 9,000 miles. The children who attend these schools — Sinai is located at Wilshire and Beverly Glen and Hoover at Wilshire and Hoover — come from two distinct communities, different in cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, religions and life experiences.
On Dec. 3, the entire eighth grade of Sinai Akiba, a Conservative day school at Sinai Temple, traveled across town to join the mostly Latino students who participate in Hoover Elementary’s LA’s BEST after-school program for an afternoon of holiday merriment, learning and a sharing of cultures.
The visit is the latest component of an initiative begun by Jacob Dayan, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, and his wife, Galit, to reach out to non-Jewish communities that know little about Israel. In a series of events last year, the consulate and the long-established after-school program introduced inner-city school kids of various backgrounds to Israeli culture via presentations and programs organized by the Israeli consulate.
The Dec. 3 event, Festivals of Light, which brought these kids together for the first time, represents the next step in the partnership. Seven Jewish day schools, including Sinai Akiba, and numerous LA’s BEST programs at local public schools have signed up for holiday-centric collaborative events meant to build understanding, communication and empathy between children whose paths might never have crossed otherwise.
“I don’t want our kids to be isolated from the real world,” said Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin, headmaster at Sinai Akiba. The day school, which requires membership at Sinai Temple and has a student body of approximately 600 children from kindergarten to eighth grade, was the first Jewish school to join the consulate’s initiative. “Our kids do loads of community service, but we were looking for a way to do something not for other communities, but with them. We were amazed and grateful that our opportunity came from the consulate. The timing was perfect.”
The afternoon began with welcoming remarks by Hoover Elementary School principal Martha Avelar, whose maternal grandmother was Jewish. She grew up eating latkes thinking they were hash browns, she later recounted. LA’s BEST president and CEO, Carla Sanger, who oversees 180 after-school programs serving more than 28,000 children at elementary schools throughout Los Angeles (at no cost to the parents), extolled the consul general for his “vision of bringing different cultures together” and for taking the project from an idea to implementation so rapidly. Of the 101 international consulates with offices in Los Angeles, the Israeli consulate is the first and only to have initiated such a cross-cultural interchange, Sanger told the students and accompanying adults.
The 170 participating children moved to various classrooms, where they learned Israeli folk dances, listened to stories from the different cultures, sang holiday songs, taught each other about their holiday traditions and sampled ethnic treats — latkes, sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) and pandulce (Mexican sweet bread).
In one classroom, a Sinai Akiba student read a poem about the meaning of light, written by a classmate: “Light represents the beginning and the end ... fire is the end of one chemical state and the beginning of another…. We light candles to mark the beginning of Shabbat and the end of Shabbat….” After the reading, she led a discussion about the poem, asking her across-town neighbors what they thought light meant. “Light protects you from the darkness, from scary things,” one girl answered. “Light represents God,” a boy chimed in.
In another classroom, children illustrated similarities between Chanukah and Christmas: exchanging presents; lighting a menorah and lighting a Christmas tree; gingerbread cookies and sufganiyot. For some Hoover Street Elementary kids, it was the first they had heard of the Maccabees, the destruction of the Temple and the miracle of the oil lasting eight days.
In the auditorium, Consul General Dayan joined one group in “Turkish Kiss,” a popular Israeli line dance set to an upbeat Turkish love song. “Dancing is not my strength,” he laughed. Dayan ebulliently described the partnership with LA’s BEST as one of the most rewarding projects he’s implemented during his two years in Los Angeles.
“The cultural perspectives gained from this exchange are as great for the Jewish kids as they are for the Latino kids,” Dayan said. “It’s an incredible learning experience for them which will then resonate with their respective communities. These children are a thread of connection — they will go home and tell their parents about what an amazing experience they just had; they’ll teach their parents, siblings and friends what they learned, and in this way, we’re reaching an entire community.”
Dayan said that in his previous visits to LA’s BEST programs, the students had little or no knowledge of Israel. They couldn’t find it on a map or guess its language. The one thing they did associate with Israel was Jesus’ birthplace.
Jewish day school students had as much to gain from the experience. “Jewish kids see our kids as victims and perpetrators on TV, and they rarely get to see anything other than those images,” said Carla Sanger of LA’s BEST. “We’re a values-based organization, and part of our mission is to build empathy and understanding between cultures. We’ve received support from the Jewish community in the past, but only in terms of charity. This is the first hands-on interaction they’ve participated in with us, and I think they’re going to benefit greatly from it.”
At the end of the day, the students all gathered in the school’s auditorium and sang “Let There be Peace on Earth,” collected candy cane- and gelt-filled blue backpacks with “You have a friend in Israel” written on them — gifts from the Israeli consulate — and snacked on latkes and sufganiyot.