Teachers and principals in Los Angeles expressed bafflement and concern this week over a decision by Israel’s Ministry of Education that could derail what many believe is a paradigmatic program fostering connection between people in the United States and Israel.
Israel’s ministry took steps that could severely limit trips to Los Angeles by Israeli students, a centerpiece of the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership’s school twinning program. The partnership, run and funded by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, pairs 19 day schools, public schools, religious schools and secular private schools with Israeli counterparts for joint educational programs and a yearly travel exchange, where students live with families from the host community.
The Los Angeles partnership, founded 13 years ago, was the first of its kind in the country and has been emulated in 45 cities since. Los Angeles’ school twinning program is the largest in the country, and the partnership also includes a filmmakers master class, a social and health services aspect, and an arts exchange.
The program’s goal of connecting Americans and Israelis has long been hailed as a success. While American participants have become more deeply connected to Israel, Israelis have gained an understanding of pluralistic Judaism and learned to view themselves as the center of a global Jewish community.
But the Israeli side has balked over the last few months. A recent article in Haaretz reported that some Israeli parents did not see any educational benefits to the trips, which include outings to Disneyland and Universal Studios. They also claimed that students who didn’t go on the trips were left behind to waste time.
In response to the article, Shimshon Shoshani, the director general of Israel’s Ministry of Education, announced that the trips would have to take place during school vacations and that school districts would have to fully subsidize the trips so that poorer students wouldn’t be left out.
Federation officials say they are lobbying the ministry in order to educate them about the benefits of the exchange and to undo misconceptions. Leaders who are traveling to Israel this season have been tasked with reaching out to contacts in Israel, especially those in places of power who can be instrumental in undoing the decision before it takes effect.
“Israel is a country where relationships count,” said John Fishel, The Federation’s president and CEO. “We’re going to use our relationships to make our case and to make it effectively and cogently, and get them to sit down and look for a solution,” he said.
Rabbi Mitchell Malkus, head of school at Pressman Academy, believes that the partnership program may have gotten caught in the middle of Israeli political maneuvering, as Israel grapples with a crisis in the quality of its public education.
Targeting a program that seems, on the surface, to be a luxury that benefits only a few probably seemed like a good way to score political capital, Malkus said.
Nearly all of the parents who were quoted in Haaretz were from Magen, Pressman’s sister school. The article quoted only disgruntled parents, though many satisfied parents spoke up in reports in other outlets.
Malkus is outraged that neither the Haaretz journalist nor the Ministry of Education contacted Pressman. Malkus said a letter he wrote to Haaretz was never published.
He also wrote a letter to the ministry, demanding a commission to investigate the issue.
“I think there are legitimate questions and concerns that were raised, but I don’t think you throw away the whole program because you have a concern over the amount of classroom hours or what is the exact right age to do this,” Malkus said.
While kids might come home talking about “The Simpsons” ride at Universal Studios or the street performers in Tel Aviv, Pressman and Magen sixth-graders also engage in a joint curriculum on a Holocaust novel, Jewish text study, social service aspects and Jewish rituals.
Around 685 students, parents and educators from Los Angeles and Tel Aviv schools went on trips in 2009.
Federation budgets about $1.2 million for the twinning program. Families pay for airfare for the trips, while Federation funds expenses — day trips, transportation, some meals — for the host schools in Los Angeles and Tel Aviv. The schools absorb expenses for extra staff or curricular funding. Federation has a $60,000 scholarship fund for Israeli and American students who can’t afford the trip, and most schools also have independent scholarship funds. Claims in the Israeli press that the trips are only for rich kids have no basis in fact, Fishel said, adding that the trips are part of a long-term strategy to ensure the robustness of Israel-Diaspora relations.
“The program is redefining the connection of our high school students to Israel in a way that I’m convinced will last a lifetime,” said Rabbi Isaac Jeret of Temple Ner Tamid in South Bay. Last year, Ner Tamid enrolled its 10th-grade religious school students in a partnership with students at a Tel Aviv public school.
Because Ner Tamid’s program is synagogue based, the benefits have extended to the whole community, and even to the Los Angeles public schools, when Ner Tamid students bring their Israeli guests to school.
At Ner Tamid and other non-Orthodox venues, Israelis are introduced, sometimes for the first time, to liberal Judaism.
Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Day School’s sister school, the David Bloch Elementary School, has integrated VBS’ Rosh Chodesh and Havdalah rituals into its curriculum and hired a Conservative rabbi. Parents at Magen, Pressman’s twin, created a monthly Kabbalat Shabbat Friday night service. One secular Israeli mother who visited VBS was so inspired by a bat mitzvah she attended that she decided to celebrate her own daughter’s bat mitzvah with a Torah reading — and she held it while the VBS students were visiting.
New Community Jewish High School has 90 students participating in three twinnings this year, including a three-month program where students attend classes at the host school. Head of School Bruce Powell says the exchange is conducted in 10th grade, because the school then has two more years to harness the students’ Israel passion and knowledge base.
Powell says Israelis take away a sense of their own centrality to the global Jewish enterprise, a benefit that accrues to religious and secular students.
“They come here and they are able, from 9,000 miles away, to get the perspective that for us American Jews, Israel is part of our Judaism,” he said. “That is anywhere from a mildly to a heavily shocking revelation of how important they are to American Jewish identity.”
Powell says he will continue to send his students to Israel, even if the ministry’s decision makes scheduling the Israelis’ trip to Los Angeles impossible.
Other schools and The Federation are making backup plans as well, figuring out how to modify schedules. No one is willing to let the program fade.
“No matter what grade they are in, the kids develop a connection to Israeli people and ultimately to Israel, and if that alone is the outcome of the program for our kids, and their kids have a connection to us as American Jews, that is money well spent in my view,” Powell said.