Teaching Partnerships - Metro West & Central New Jersey Young Educators' Group Mission
“This trip to Israel reinforces the way we engage with our roles as educators in passing on the keys to Judaism,” enthused Christina Broussard. “It's a great opportunity to learn from all different perspectives and to connect with our fellow teachers in Israel.”
Christina was one of eight young Jewish educators from the Federation of Central New Jersey and UJC of MetroWest, who took time out of her packed schedule to travel throughout Israel on a joint mission, in late January, 2012. Meeting with other educational professionals, learning about their Federation’s projects and sharing tools on how to strengthen Jewish identity, the diverse group came together in a pilot mission in anticipation of the two Federations' planned merger.
As a flagship endeavor, the trip formed connections not only between Federations but also between the NJ and their Israeli partner communities. The Federations' long-standing commitment to Israel made the location choice for this trip an obvious one.The trip was focused on areas of growth in education, as demonstrated in current Federation projects and those earmarked for future Federation involvement.
The reciprocal relationship between the Federations and Gush Etzion, where participants spent three days, was encouraged through various elements of the program, especially the Lamed Hey legacy; the story about the heroic defense of Gush Etzion in 1948. Gush Etzion has been linked to UJC of Metro West for more than a decade and the group was able to learn about the history of the place and the pioneering spirit which has established the Gush as one of the footholds of Zionism.
Visiting the Gush Etzion Reishit School, renowned for offering integrative classes for special needs children, the group discovered an oversubscribed warm and welcoming school where all pupils learn together but are catered for individually. One participant noted, “We see our role in America as similar to what the teachers are doing here. We need to focus on the good in each student, work on individuals and their needs. We see that when that happens, the effects can work upwards as well as across: children teach their parents tolerance and there is a positive ripple effect over the whole community.” Yifat, Head Teacher of Reishit, whose grandparents had fought in the battle of Gush Etzion, wondered that, “Our method of inclusion is so natural to us that we can't even understand why others don't take it on.”
Breaking down barriers and welcoming a broader approach was a central theme of the trip. As all know too well, for every two Jews, there are at least three opinions. Despite its small size, the Educators' group managed to espouse a breadth of religious views, which in turn provided a positive basis for discussing the experiences the week-long trip offered.
“You'd think we'd known each other for ages, wouldn't you?” noted one participant smilingly, commenting on the close-knit camaraderie that had formed after only a few days of touring. “We can really feel the benefits of the small group. There's space for each person to air their views and therefore really learn from others.” Susan Rifkin, basketball and public speaking teacher at JEC – Bruriah High School for girls remarked that being split up into small groups for traveling and using the private cars of both Federations Israel based staff “made us feel more intimate and helped us get to know each other quicker.”
This was not the first time participants found themselves in Israel but this trip offered the educators an insider experience, by having the opportunity to meet with their Israeli counterparts. Alyse Hellpern, 5th grade Jewish Ethics teacher at Hardbrook JC, proclaimed, “The greatest part of being here is seeing all the other new ideas and learning from our colleagues in a different country. It's a 'backstage pass to Israel and Israeli society.” For Linda Poloyeff, the Director of Education for the Federation of Central New Jersey, the perspective of this trip was more immediate than any other. “I'm not just seeing where the dollars go but I'm meeting the people involved in educational projects here - learning from them, following in their path. We have universal concerns and the quality of education we offer our children stands at the forefront.”
An Arad after-school English class showcased to the educators many methods used by Hebrew teachers in New York. Christina, who runs the Hebrew school at Bnai Jeshurun, a synagogue of 1200 families in Short Hills NJ, reflected on this in speaking of the challenges faced by Jewish educators in keeping their audience involved. “We see in the struggle to cement values of identity in Israel, the same struggle that plays out in the States for teachers of after-school Jewish programs. Our mission is for kids at after school programs to feel their Jewish identity in their soul just as much as day school kids do.”
For Rabbi Josh Cohen, a 10th grade Bible teacher at the JEC’s Rav Teitz Mesivta Academy, one highlight of the trip was meeting with Menachem Sanbato, Director of “Atzmaut” project in Rishon Lezion at the 'Merkaz Lemida', an afterschool education program designed to assist Ethiopian immigrants in their integration to the mainstream school system. He remarked that, “After meeting with individuals like Menachem, I'm inspired. You see that we're able to make an influence and change the flow.”
Many in the group expressed the sentiment that education is the prime tool of change and understood why the trip had selected that focus for their first joint activity. Indeed, Gush Etzion, on initially receiving financial support from the Federations for the purposes of increased security, had asked that the funds instead be earmarked for educational purposes. Educating the next generation for both Israelis and Americans is seen as the key to ensuring a strong sense of Jewish identity.
“We're looking at a development of thought, confidence and identity which is inspiring and welcoming,” commented one participant. “We can sometimes see a trend of Israeli school kids taking their Jewish identity for granted. We've been seeing a beacon of hope in Israeli education, giving children a better handle on who they are as Jews.”
Elly Bauman, Education Director at Congregation Beth Israel Scotch Plains, remarked after visiting Reishit, “Here, they're creating within an educational setting the type of pluralist environment we want in the general community; that of acceptance, respect, tolerance.”
The trip of Educators from the Metro West and Central New Jersey Federations was one foundation stone in the respectful and tolerant collaborative endeavor between Federations, educators and the Diaspora-Israel connection.