The classroom looks like any other -- Formica tiles on the floor, florescent lights on the ceiling and rows and rows of desks. But what happens in this utilitarian space located on the second floor of UCLA's Public Policy building is anything but ordinary.
Every few weeks the regularly scheduled class, which meets in this room on Monday mornings, forgoes its usual routine to participate in a live teleconference with its sister class at Tel Aviv University in Israel.
At a recent co-meeting of the classes, a huge projection screen at the front of the U.S. classroom acted as a virtual window into the Israeli classroom. Not only could the students on both sides see one another, but each student also had a microphone. The idea behind this high-tech set-up is to have a transatlantic conversation about politics, religion and social dynamics.
"It is quite incredible for two classes to talk to each other," said Dr. Fredelle Spiegel, the director of UCLA's Israel-Diaspora Programs and professor of the American class. "Sometimes it goes better, sometimes it goes worse, but there is always something interesting."
The teleconference always begins with a set list of questions submitted by the students, Spiegel said, but usually the conversation quickly veers away from the predetermined outline. This time the teleconference's opening question was submitted by the Israeli students: "How can American Jews be Jewish living in a non-Jewish state?"
A UCLA student promptly raised her hand to tackle this question. "I like being in a diverse culture," she said, with a defensive tone in her voice. But, as soon as she made this statement, one of her classmates added, "I also think it is a lot more challenging to be Jewish here. You really have to make a conscious effort to remember your identity here. It is very easy to blend into American culture."
Spiegel explained that questions dealing with issues of Jewish identity are common coming from the Israeli students. She said this is because of a fundamental difference between the two cultures, which is that America is a multicultural country with an emphasis on individuality, while Israel is a Jewish state that practices what Spiegel referred to as "communitarianism."
When not delving into identity issues, the two classes usually talk politics and this teleconference was no exception. In fact, the students on both sides of the Atlantic were surprised when Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), walked into the classroom.
Both the American students and the Israelis regarded the congressman's impromptu visit as the perfect opportunity to voice their opinions.
Avi, one of the Israeli students, said, "I don't know if you know what we do to politicians here, but we put them in the crossfire. This is a good opportunity for us and we are not going to miss it." Both classes erupted with laughter, but then got serious when Avi asked, "What are the interests behind the connection between Israel and the United States?"
After Berman responded that the connection is based on "democracy and some sense of shared values," the Israeli students continued to fire questions at him. Dina, a soft-spoken Israeli girl asked, "What makes Congressman B. pro-Israel?" And after Berman called himself a Zionist, Irit, another Israeli student, asked, "What does it mean to you to be a Zionist?"
These questions are characteristic of the issues explored during every teleconference. While there is not always a U.S. congressman on hand to provide answers, the students on both sides of the camera's lens passionately express their opinions in a dialogue, where no topic is taboo.
And this political forum has definitely hosted its share of disagreements.
"There is tremendous disagreement both in Israel and here about what Israel should do," Spiegel said. "I always have the few lefties who are appalled with everything and then I have the right-wingers, who are appalled with the lefties, so you'll have arguments internationally, but also within each group. So that is kind of fun."
Spiegel said that debate and dialogue is precisely the point of the teleconference.
Spiegel came up with the teleconference format after participating in a similar discussion between older Israeli and American Jews. Spiegel and her Tel Aviv counterpart, Eyal Navel, submitted a grant to The Jewish Federation, the organization that originally funded the program. Now in its second year, UCLA has both picked up the class as a regular course and also covers the cost.
American junior Matt Tseng said the most rewarding part of the class was learning about a new culture. "I learned a lot about the American Jews and the Israeli Jews, they're interconnected, but there is also a lot of difference." Tseng added, "I have a lot of conflict within this room myself by not being Jewish, by taking this class."
Tseng said he wished the classes could have discussed issues besides religion and politics, he said, he always wanted to ask the Israelis questions like, "What kind of music do you like?" But, he acknowledged, that was beside the point.
One of the UCLA students actually was an Israeli studying in the United States. He asked to remain anonymous because he also is an employee of the Israeli government. In this Israeli's opinion, only the Jews in the class understood the issues at hand, while the non-Jews were, "completely off."
"They don't know what it is to fear," he said. "They don't know what it is to hear a bomb explosion and read the newspaper hoping not to find your friend. They do not know how this feels."
The goal of the class, Spiegel said, is to foster a greater understanding between the two cultures. "They really got a sense of the difficulties that the Israelis are going through in a way that they don't get from a newspaper," she said. "A lot of them every quarter will say, 'Gee, I know we read this in the books, but I didn't understand it until I talked to the Israelis.' And that is what teleconferencing is supposed to be."