"My second time there I was like, wow, I have a family here," said the Oakwood School student, who also attends Los Angeles Hebrew High School. "I want to join the Israeli army or there's a three-year ulpan I can do after college. I know I have to do something, because I really do have a connection to it now."
Blau's life-changing journey was part of The Jewish Federation's Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership's school twinning program. The partnership, a 10-year-old program, matches Los Angeles and Tel Aviv schools to form a relationship between the two communities. American and Israeli students correspond via e-mail, online chats and video conferencing; share a joint curriculum, and participate in travel exchanges to meet one another and spend time in their mutual countries.
The goal is to maintain a strong bond between Jews in the United States and Israel. Currently, 18 Los Angeles schools participate in the program. Participating students, or "delegates," range from fifth to 11th grade, depending on the school.
While Jewish day schools were among the first Los Angeles schools to participate, the twinning program recently expanded to include supplemental schools. The religious schools within Temple Judea of Tarzana, Temple Israel of Hollywood and Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay are among the new participants.
"We want to reach those kids who are not in the day schools and who are less connected to Israel," said Ahuva Ron, The Jewish Federation's Tel Aviv-Los Angeles senior education director.
When Temple Judea's religious school joined the twinning program three years ago with its Tel Aviv twin, Ironi Yud Daled, the shul community's interest in Israel changed dramatically.
"Israel was a back-burner issue for a lot of our families," said Rabbi Bruce Raff, the religious school's education director, who travels with his students during the exchange. "Now there is tremendous enthusiasm about Israel that has become so pervasive in our religious school that children younger and younger can't wait until I take them there."
This communitywide passion has inspired the synagogue to organize other yearly trips to the Holy Land, including an adults-only trip and a family trip, not to mention the subsequent trips that former delegates often take with their families after their partnership experience.
While supplemental twinning programs are clearly transformational, they present a unique set of challenges. Since afternoon schools usually only meet once or twice a week, it takes more time for teachers to get through the curriculum.
"What we can accomplish in one week in day school, we need a month in afternoon schools," Ron said.
At Los Angeles Hebrew High School, students must correspond with their Israeli counterparts in their free time because some of their classes are held at Pierce College, where they do not have access to computers for in-class chatting, video conferences or e-mail.
Because religious school students attend a variety of different public and private schools, conflicting vacation schedules can make travel schedules difficult. While Jewish day schools are very accommodating when their students travel to Israel for the partnership, other schools are not always as supportive.
"One of the challenges is that our kids are missing school, and they are missing schools that don't sanction our trip," said Raff from Temple Judea. "Many of the schools are not happy about the students leaving for an extended period of time."
In addition to helping the delegates get permission from their schools, trips are sometimes planned over spring break so that students usually miss no more than one week of school. Consequently, this means that the trip takes place during the Israeli students' school break. Because of these circumstances, these delegates spend only a day or so at their Israeli school.
Administrators at Temple Israel of Hollywood plan to assist their religious school students in gearing up for their April trip.
"We'll be in close contact with the principals about what [the students are] set to gain from this experience and how their learning experience will outweigh what they're missing," said Eden Sage, the interim religious school director. "We'll be working closely to make sure these kids have the support they need from their schools."
While traveling to Israel makes history come to life for delegates, it is clearly the new lifelong friendships that solidify the students' connection to Israel. For Ben Poretzky, a Temple Judea delegate from 2007, loving Israel is very much tied to his friendship with his former host, Lior Salter.
"Sitting in Lior's basement playing Ping-Pong, noshing on chips and staying up until 4 a.m." and playing early morning soccer with Lior are among the 16-year-old's fondest memories. He is planning another trip to Israel either next summer or in college.
The students are not the only ones who benefit. When Bobbie Blau, an Encino parent, chaperoned her daughter, Sarah's, partnership exchange, she developed strong friendships with the teachers she met at their twin school, Ironi Daled, with whom she remains close. In addition, Blau's younger daughter, Emily, 15, hosted Israeli student last March and will travel to Israel in December to stay with her. The younger Blau, too, has begun to foster a lifelong friendship.
"They're our friends now. It's personal now," Bobbie Blau said. "I don't feel like I'm a tourist there either, now. My daughters have that feeling, and their children will have that feeling."