The daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, Rachel Swift Linn always felt Jewish, even after her parents divorced when she was young and she began living with her mother.
But that’s not how Linn is perceived by much of the organized Jewish community.
“I’d tell people I’m Jewish, and they’d say, ‘No, you’re not,’ ” Linn said, frowning at the memory.
Despite the negative feedback, Linn continued to identify herself as Jewish and became more determined than ever to find meaning in her Jewish background.
That determination led Linn, a 23-year-old Spanish teacher at the New Millennium Secondary School in Carson, Calif., to apply for the REALITY Israel Experience.
A part of the Teach For America (TFA) program, which taps recent college grads to teach in economically distressed communities, Linn was one of the 57 TFA educators — including several from Los Angeles — who visited Israel this summer on a trip of professional development and personal discovery.
Funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation (CLSFF) and the Samberg Family Foundation in partnership with Teach For America and the ROI Community of Young Jewish Innovators, the visit introduced TFA corps members to Israel’s education and social justice systems through the prism of Jewish values.
To qualify for the all-expenses-paid program, participants needed to demonstrate “an affiliation or interest in Jewish life,” Adam Simon, associate national director of the Schusterman Foundation explained during an encounter with pluralistic Israeli schools at the Keshet School in Jerusalem.
While some of the participants have two Jewish parents, others have one Jewish parent or another Jewish family member. Still others aren’t Jewish but have Jewish partners and want to learn more about Jewish life and culture.
Only 4 percent of the participants had previously visited Israel, organizers said.
Throughout their time in Israel, the young educators explored how Jewish values such as tikkun olam inform social justice, activism, education, charity and other contributions to the larger community.
At the much-depleted Dead Sea, the director of EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East explained how Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmentalists are working together to tackle Israel’s water shortage. In Yerucham, a development town, they learned how the organization Atid BaMidbar has helped heal divisions between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews.
A day devoted to inclusiveness included a unique meal at the Blackout Restaurant, where the participants dined in total darkness, served by blind waiters; and a performance by a troupe of deaf-blind performers.
A tutorial on physical accessibility brought the participants to Jerusalem, where they tried to navigate a busy street on crutches, blindfolded or in wheelchairs.
The participants also spent time talking shop with their counterparts from Teach First Israel — a TFA-like program — at Israeli schools.
In Jerusalem, the participants received a living lesson in tolerance by speaking with students from the Keshet School, where Jewish kids from every religious stream study together; and at the Hand in Hand School, a bilingual Hebrew/Arabic school; and in Tel Aviv at the Bialik-Rogozin School, which (as conveyed in the Academy Award-winning documentary “Strangers No More”) has opened its doors and hearts to the children of refugees and foreign workers.
While acknowledging that their programs are unique, educators from the three schools emphasized that with the right vision and values, with enthusiastic people at the helm, and with a good head for fundraising, educational models that foster pluralism, equality and inclusiveness can be created anywhere.
“The trip’s goal has been to present Jewish life as relevant and meaningful, no matter where you teach,” Simon said.
Teach For America viewed the Israel trip as a pilot, according to Andrew Mandell, TFA’s vice president of interactive learning and engagement.
Although the young teachers receive training to prepare them for their two-year commitment, “we haven’t done any programming to help our corps members process the experience and to reflect on their values and strengths.”
Mandell called the REALITY experience “a special and unique opportunity.” Israel, he said, “is a great place to talk about leadership, Jewish values and how to create an equitable society.”
Like the group as a whole, the TFA representatives from Los Angeles said they would bring the lessons they learned back into their classrooms in the fall.
“I learned a lot about the way conflicts in Israel are created and resolved,” said Katherine Devries, a 23-year-old sixth-grade teacher at the Lakeview Charter Academy. Devries, who was raised Catholic and has “a half-Jewish” boyfriend, said she hopes to challenge her students more after meeting “Israeli kids so articulate about their identity and their relationships to each other.”
Julianna Malogolowkin, who just completed a year teaching in South Los Angeles, found it “amazing” how Israelis deal with hardship.
“We’re working in low-income communities, and we think things are quite bad. They are, but in Israel we’ve come to see how they deal with similar problems.”
Spending time in Israel also sparked Malogolowkin’s interest in Judaism. Both her parents are Jewish, she said.
Now, she said, “I want Judaism to be a larger presence in my life, and I’m looking into studying at the Hebrew University,” she said.
Becky Weinstein, who encountered anti-Semitism during her childhood in Massachusetts, “even though just about the only Jewish thing about me was my last name,” was moved by the many concrete examples of tikkun olam she encountered in Israel.
The realization that Jewish values are so consistent with her own ideals motivated Weinstein, a special-education teacher at the KIPP Academy of Opportunity in South Los Angeles, to seek out a Jewish community — for the very first time — upon her return home.
For Linn, the Spanish teacher, the trip was a valuable way to explore how Israelis, who are required to learn English, and sometimes Arabic, succeed with bilingualism.
It was also a chance to be embraced as a Jew.
“The reaction [to my Jewish status] here has been the total opposite of the reaction back home,” Linn said. “In Israel, Jewishness is as much about being a people than a religion, and I have a place in it.”
In Los Angeles, she said, “I want to become more involved in the Jewish community.”