Dawn Eliashiv was checking in her luggage at LAX when she and the group participating in the recent Family Solidarity Mission to Israel heard about the April 20 bombing in Kfar Saba that left two dead and 40 injured. At that moment, she asked herself the question that had many a time crossed her mind in the previous weeks: "I really want to support Israel, but is it really the right thing to do to send my child there now?"
The answer to this question became clear to Eliashiv and the other parents of Pressman Academy middle-school students who may have been hesitant to send their children on this 10-day mission to Israel organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles as part of the Los Angeles-Tel Aviv Partnership, a school twinning program that matches Jewish students from Los Angeles with students from schools in Tel Aviv to fortify links among them and to enrich their Jewish identities. While the current crisis may have deterred some schools and parents from participating in the exchange programs, Pressman Academy and Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple demonstrate that such programs can thrive despite the tense security situation.
"Unfortunately, in the past few months, I've been hearing parents, teachers and principals explain that it was too risky to come to Israel," said Doron Kochavi, Tel Aviv chair of the Los Angeles-Tel Aviv Partnership's education committee. "We really need this support from Jews living in the Diaspora. Here in the Mideast we are very isolated, and we are at an important junction in the relationship between Israel and Diaspora communities."
The Pressman students were originally scheduled to come to Israel for 10 days without their parents in December, but that trip was put on hold amid safety concerns. In the interim, students and staff from the Magen Elementary School in Tel Aviv, Pressman's twin school, came to Los Angeles in March as scheduled. The connection forged with Los Angeles students and subsequent correspondence assisted in alleviating any fears regarding safety and actually generated excitement for the trip.
"When children came in March, it created so much enthusiasm among the children that they told their parents, 'We want to go to Israel,'" said Sandra Braun, mother of Pressman sixth-grader Jonah.
"It's rough in Israel, and I think it's important that they come here during the rough times," said Magen sixth-grader Noa Gilon. "We also explained to them that the violence wasn't in our area."
Once proper time was given to address concerns regarding safety, the Federation and the Pressman staff and parents decided to make the trip a "Family Solidarity Mission" in which one parent would have the option of escorting his or her child to Israel. Subsequently, 23 students, 16 parents and three staff members from Pressman participated in the trip with students staying with an Israeli family, often the family of the student whom they hosted in Los Angeles, and parents at a hotel.
Some parents had no hesitations to send their children, both because of the popular notion that the big cities are not near the battle zones and because of their convictions. "To not come is self-defeating, gives into the terror and is an unnecessary extreme reaction even under these circumstances," said Steven Sponz, father of fifth-grader Ricky.
For many of the 21 Milken 10th-grade students currently studying for three months at Tichon Hadash (New High School) in Tel Aviv as part of the school twinning program, the current security situation was hardly a concern. In fact, the violence broke out while the Tichon Hadash students were spending their three months at Milken, which gave the students the opportunity to become informed and work through any concerns and fears together.
When the news splashed reports of the erupting violence in October, the Israeli students were in regular touch with their parents, who often countered the gravity of the images they were receiving from the news wires.
"It seems much worse when you're in Los Angeles," said Omer Bachar at a festive Yom HaAtzmaut barbecue that took place at the home of one of the Israeli students. "It's bigger on the news. Here in Israel you don't feel it as much."
With a few exceptions, the Milken parents and students remained steadfast in their decision to participate in the program. However, students were prohibited from riding on buses, and they were required to carry cell phones at all times. When they heard news of bombings, students were often cautioned to stay away from certain areas and crowds. Aside from these restrictions, the program was generally unaffected by the security situation.
"At first we didn't know if the group would come here," said Hagai Nivron, a Tichon Hadash parent who plays an active role in organizing family trips. "We were very concerned. Then again, we were very glad when they decided to send their kids over. We really appreciated it, and I think the kids are having the time of their lives. Maybe they wouldn't go everywhere, but I think the experience is for them to be together, and they are together, and they live daily lives with Israelis. They have adjusted almost like the Israeli kids and they just accept it. I don't think they are bothered. There is no other way to live in this country."
It was such appreciation that was often expressed by the staff, parents and students of the Israeli schools that further convinced the parents on the Family Solidarity Mission that they were doing the right thing in sending their kids.
"When I came here, I was very moved by how everybody was so appreciative of our visit, kind of surprised that we came," said Eliashiv, whose fears relaxed as the program progressed. "I was surprised to hear it repeated one time after the other. I realized that the trip was more special than I had envisioned."