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Project Peoplehood: The Haifa-Boston Connection pioneers Jewish identity initiatives

There’s no question for those invested in the future of world Jewry: Jewish Peoplehood is this year’s official buzzword.

As fewer people identify with traditional Judaism and our globe shrinks, thanks to online social media, everyone seems to be talking about deepening connections over geographic distance.

The Haifa-Boston Connection is not just talking about it; they have become real leaders in the field.

Founded in 1989, the Connection was initially developed to help ease absorption from the former Soviet Union. Since then it has attracted hundreds of volunteers on both sides of the ocean who are engaged in deepening the ties between these two communities around topics such as education, Jewish identity, economic development, welfare services among populations-at-risk, integrating Ethiopian immigrants, and social justice. Historically, each specific area of involvement has been represented by a committee of volunteers from both communities, who worked in tandem, meeting up in person when possible and connecting over videoconference.

In the past few years, there has been a subtle shift in the group’s focus. According to Vered Israely, Director of the Connection, instead of supporting many diverse projects, they choose fewer areas and work to amplify the levels of commitment in those chosen areas. Volunteers from committees have recently come together to form cross-committees that concentrate on three specific topics: Young leadership, Youth-at-risk and Jewish identity.

This has effectively turned up the volume on Jewish identity projects. For the last 12 years, Shdemot, the center for community leadership of Oranim Academic College, has worked with the Connection to develop curriculum and programming within Haifa schools and prepare scores of Israeli students to visit North American Jewish communities. Four years ago, a decision was made to take these projects one step further, to move from influencing students through trips abroad to involving all members of the communities –youngsters, their educators and their parents in joint projects. Two sets of partner schools were chosen to pioneer some of these new cutting-edge projects even as other Jewish identity activities continue to grow organically at the 20 participating schools in the two communities.

With all this growth, it’s hard to believe that just six years ago, it was a challenge to get educators from Haifa and Boston to really communicate. Roberta Bell Klinger of Shdemot recalls when the rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in Sudbury, Massachusetts and the principal of the Chugim School in Haifa were approached to consider having a delegation of Haifa students visit the U.S.; both were reluctant to get involved. This all changed after the first visit. The small number of students from Chugim returned to Israel “transformed,” says Klinger. They talked about what an important place Israel was, how lucky they were to live there and they also had a new appreciation for their uniquely Jewish identity, celebrating holidays with renewed gusto – something that particularly pleased the formerly reluctant rabbi of Sudbury. And the response of the American students was no less enthusiastic as they felt newly excited about Israel. Now there is a waiting list to get into the program and trip graduates have formed deep relationships with their peers.

The students study Jewish texts and traditions in preparation for a visit overseas and then return afterwards to review what they learned and prepare to host friends from their partner city. 

Peter Sorek, a teacher at Chugim, prepares his students for their visit to Massachusetts with lessons about diverse Jewish traditions – for many Israeli youngsters this is their first real exposure to liberal streams of Judaism. He says that students are amazed by the centrality of the community synagogue in Sudbury. “They return from their visit with a higher regard for Diaspora Jewry. They’ll say: ‘Kol HaKavod (All due respect) to American Jews who care so much about their Judaism,” he explains.

According to Sorek’s students, the experience of visiting their US peers is life-changing. Oded Abada, a 10th grader at Chugim, discovered that he could connect to Judaism as a cultural identity as well as a religion. “I no longer have to be pushed to do Jewish things. I want to,” he said.

Stephanie Hirsch, one of Abada’s classmates, echoed that idea. On Simchat Torah in Sudbury, Hirsch was called up to the synagogue pulpit for a ritual aliyah for the first time. With little exposure to more liberal streams of Judaism, many of the girls had never had the opportunity to participate in synagogue rituals.

“It was my Bat Mitzvah!” said Hirsch,” I was very glad I had done it.”

Boston’s unique character as a city known for its diversity and cosmopolitanism is a good match for Haifa, says Ronit Shnaider, another of Sorek’s students. As residents of Haifa, a city known for its tradition of coexistence with the Arab community, Boston’s spirit of tolerance feels like home. The Haifa students bonded quickly with their U.S. counterparts and stay in touch “on a daily basis on Facebook,” according to Abada.

Looking back on the trip this past October, all three students recall one moment as the undisputed highlight. The group, wearing their delegation sweatshirts, stood together at the Holocaust memorial in Boston, singing Hatikvah (Israel’s national anthem) in what felt like a moment frozen in time, as passersby went about their business.

“Suddenly, we Israelis understood what it is like to be a Jew in a place where Jews are not the majority. People were just passing by, listening to their i-Pods right next to the Holocaust memorial. We got the idea that in this country, you have to work to have a Jewish identity. I had a new appreciation for my U.S. friends and also for their parents, who exposed their children to Judaism,” explained Abada.

This model of student delegations coupled with intensive pre-and-post study has been successful for pairs of schools throughout the two communities. Bella Veksler, a chemistry and biotechnology teacher at Haifa’s Ironi Aleph serves as one of the educators for the ‘Putting Israel on the Map’ program which matches Haifa students of Russian origin with counterparts in Boston, teaching about Jewish communities worldwide and serving as a forum for students to explore their own identity.

“It is not easy for many of the students to define and understand their Judaism,” explains Veksler. “Many come from intermarried families with little actual connection to the religion. This completely reinvigorates their connection,” she says.

Since 2006, the Haifa group has visited Boston and while the students become emotionally close to their American peers, the Israelis continue to feel that Israel is their home. The Russian-American students reported that it made them more curious about Israel and exposed them to new political and social views, according to Veksler.

“They all discover that they have more cultural Jewish identity than they originally thought. The foods they eat at the holidays, the Yiddish songs with Russian tunes, even the fact that their families read a lot and are highly educated – they are surprised to learn this is also part of a Jewish heritage,” says Veksler.

It is the success of several school partnerships that led the Haifa-Boston Connection towards expanding their Jewish identity project.

Two partnerships have been chosen to pioneer this new move: Ironi Hey in Haifa with Gann Academy in Boston and the Reali High School in Haifa with the Prozdor Academy in Boston. The concept, still in its nascent stage, is ambitious and those involved speak about it with great enthusiasm.

Galit Granot, Deputy Director of Pedagogy at the Reali School, a private school with a tradition of pluralism and volunteerism, is fully engaged in increasing her school’s connection with Prozdor on multiple levels. For the past four years, the two schools have been studying Israel advocacy over videoconference as part of the David Project. Now the two have joined forces forming ‘Pirkei Dorot’ (Chapter of the Generations), a project which will include joint curriculum, new avenues for student media and other forms of web-based expression for students. All of these new tools will serve the project’s three-pronged focus: Jewish identity, Jewish Peoplehood and connection to Israel.

From about 30 students who currently meet over once-a-week videoconference, Granot wants to see 120 active participants. Another goal is a post-high school year of service in which both Haifa and Boston students will join together in Israel to give back to the community before heading off to the army or to college. The possibilities for joint activities are almost endless: a radio station to broadcast the latest in Israel-Diaspora news and creative expression, a website for the same, films created and disseminated by the students, and new forms of distance learning for parents of students at the two schools.

“We believe that change will come through future generations. That’s why we’re investing in them” says Granot.

That goal is shared by Israely at the Haifa office of the Connection. “We want to create a revolution of renewed Jewish identity not just for specific schools, but for the two communities as a whole. The changes are happening on both sides and concurrently. We are influencing and slowly transforming each other,” she says.

For more information, visit the online home of The Haifa-Boston Connection.

Please send questions or comments about this article to Suzanne Selengut.

Haifa and Boston students keep in touch daily on Facebook.

Students of Russian origin from Haifa's Ironi Aleph school gather in Israel with their peers from Boston.

According to Haifa teacher Bella Veksler, students of Russian heritage discover they have more of a Jewish cultural identity than they originally thought.

Some 30 students at the Reali school in Haifa study Israel Advocacy over weekly videoconference with Boston's Prozdor Academy students

American students discover new ties to modern Israel while Israeli youngsters express new appreciation for Diapora Jewry.

Student delegations from Prozdor Academy and the Reali School spending time together. The two schools are part of a new project to further deepen the Jewish connections between Haifa and Boston.