At a time when all Israeli high school students are grappling with the trauma of terrorism, one group of students has received a morale boost from their peers in Los Angeles.
In response to the Dolphinarium terrorist attack that took the lives of seven Shevach Mofet students last June, members of Los Angeles' Jewish community, led by philanthropist Lowell Milken and students at Milken Community High School, rallied to help fund a new library and technology center for the school.
The library is a tribute to the memory of the victims and has sparked a new friendship between the two school communities.
"Our answer to terrorism is not revenge and the continuing bloodshed," Shevach Mofet Principal Avi Benbenishty said. "Our response is to continue the creation and construction, another tree and another book."
The terrorist bombing at the Tel Aviv disco Dolphinarium killed 22 young emigrants from the former Soviet Union and injured 50 others, many who were students at Shevach Mofet. Only a week earlier, Milken Community High School students participating in the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, a beneficiary of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, had visited the same disco. The L.A. students were deeply saddened by the tragedy that befell their friends in Israel. Later that summer, when Metuka Benjamin, director of education at Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School visited Shevach Mofet, she met with injured students and their families.
"I was extremely impressed," Benjamin told The Journal. "I saw many things that were made by students, and I could see that the principal was an educator with values and that the kids are connected to Israel."
She also noticed that the school had an old and inadequate library.
"I saw the passion that these kids have for learning and that they didn't have a proper library. They had a hole in the wall with some books," she said.
Benjamin returned to the United States intent on finding a donor for a new library. She contacted Milken and explained to him that these students are the future of Israeli society. Milken was eager to help, but because at the time his foundation was unable to make additional grants, he offered to fund the project out of his own pocket. He donated $325,000 and Milken Community High students personally collected another $25,000 to stock the bookshelves with titles in Hebrew, Russian and English.
Shevach Mofet, one of Tel Aviv's oldest schools, was almost shut down by the city 10 years ago, but a wave of emigration from the former Soviet Union gave the school new life. It now has a reputation as one of the most advanced technical schools in Israel, drawing students who commute daily from around the country.
The school is also a recent recipient of the prestigious Education Prize bestowed on the country's top educational institutions. Ninety percent of the current 1,450 students come from the former Soviet Union, with many excelling in the study of computers, engineering, electronics and robotics.
The new library and technology center formally opened in December and quickly became a favorite place of study for many students. Eleventh-grader Marina Tzadikov said she goes to the library nearly every day, sometimes working for three hours at a stretch on a computer. "It's fun and pretty," she said, "but whenever I come in, I remember the terror, and I am reminded of the students who died in the attack."
In addition to providing a quiet, relaxing place to study, the library is equipped with computers and other resources for learning, which many students don't have at home.
It's also helping to foster a friendship between the two high schools, which conduct joint research projects over the Internet and hold video conferences. And there are plans to develop programs dealing with Jewish identity and b'nai mitzvah.
Earlier this year, two Shevach Mofet students and the vice principal traveled to Los Angeles to attend a rally for Israel. And this summer, Israel will host a two-week seminar at which students from both schools will study together.
Benjamin has also found a donor to help finance a new cafeteria and enlisted her elementary school students in a drive to raise money for children who can't afford to buy a hot lunch. The program, which was launched last week, raised $1,600 in two days toward the goal of $280,000, which will be used to sponsor lunch for an entire year for 400 students.
Outside the new library's entrance hangs a plaque that includes the inscription: "Memories for the Heart, Knowledge for the Mind, Foundation for the Soul." In the school's main hallway, seven photographs hang on the wall above a table adorned with fresh cut flowers, memorial candles and a guest book. "You are true heroes of Zion," one visitor wrote. "May you know no further sorrow and may peace come to our lives," penned another.
Benjamin said the library will not solve the terrorist problem, "but at least we didn't sit and cry and do nothing for ourselves," she said. "Now, there's a library so kids can advance and educate themselves. They attacked, they killed, they murdered, so we put this library up to remember the kids. We will never forget our kids."