“I like them coming to school with us, and I wish they could say for longer than just a week.”
That’s what Jessie Handler, an 8th grader at Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton, shared about her two friends visiting from Haifa. Jessie and her family hosted Dorian Mor and Yael Amran this past week as part of an exchange between Schechter and the Reali Ahuza school in Haifa. The girls first got in touch by emailing with each other and chatting on Facebook a few months ago.
“It’s like having a sleepover for 7 days with two girls that I’ve only ever talked to on the internet,” Jessie said. “I was excited to meet them for the first time because we were talking for a few months and not really knowing what each other’s life was like and our cultures were totally different. So it’s really cool that they’re here living an American lifestyle.”
Dorian, Jessie, and Yael
Over the Sukkot holiday, three different school-to-school missions from Haifa visited their counterparts through the Boston-Haifa Connection. In addition to Reali and Schechter, Ironi Hey sent 10th graders to Gann Academy, and Hebrew school students at Congregation Beth El of Sudbury Valley also hosted 10th graders from Haifa’s Hugim school.
Israel’s Ministry of Education recently made planning for these trips a little more difficult by changing its official policy so that schools are only allowed to plan delegations around school vacations. While students are allowed take three additional school days off, it creates a bit of a time crunch.
So the group of 51 from the Reali school packed a lot into the trip, starting out in Washington, DC and then doing some sight-seeing around New York City before coming up to Boston. While in town, they went on a whale watch in Plymouth, saw a Blue Man Group show, walked the Freedom Trail, and celebrated Simchat Torah.
The kids had a lot of fun, and they also learned a lot about each other, correcting some misconceptions about what life is like in their respective cities and countries.
“I knew that there were Jews all around the world, including America,” Dorian said. “But I didn’t think they really kept up with the Jewish traditions or the mitzvot. I thought that they knew they were Jews but didn’t practice at all.
“But being Jewish is really important to them – they have teffilot every morning in school. We don’t have the same thing in Israel. We don’t pray every day. We study, but not even much Tanach. Maybe an hour or two a week. It’s different here because they approach Judaism more seriously. It’s almost more important to them living here in America, because they could lose their Jewish identity if they don’t go to a Jewish school or to synagogue. I had no idea it was like that.”
There were other discussions and topics that made people think. Jessie noted how the water shortage in Israel forces her Israeli friends to consider their water usage and think of ways to conserve water. In the US, while some people try to be environmentally conscious, it doesn’t resonate nationally in the same way.
The teens also had a chance to talk about the political situation, with the Israelis explaining terms thrown around in the news media, such as the Green Line or what the red line means regarding peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Yael said she was surprised to hear that some Americans think Israelis live in fear all the time and that there’s always war all over the country.
“We live normally exactly the way everyone else in the world lives and we told them that,” she said.
While the Haifaim have returned to Israel, these friendships will continue online where they started, at least for the next few months. The 8th graders from Schechter will take a class trip to Israel in March and will get to spend some time in Haifa being hosted by their new friends, which Jessie is already looking forward to.
“I think it will be cool to see them after not seeing them for 6 months and get to live their life for a few days too.”