Twinning program connects Israeli, Bay Area schools

Two Israeli teens and two American teens are huddled in a semicircle, trying to decide how to articulate the values they share.

They talk about tolerance, academic excellence and respect for Jewish life, words they write down as they craft a mutual mission statement for their binational partnership.

Inbar Fischer, an outspoken student from the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa, says to the group that “there is no such thing as being a good Jew — our schools want us to be a good person.”

Fischer was one of 24 Reali students to visit their peers at the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City for one week, Nov. 5 through 12. During that time, they went to school at Wornick, stayed in students’ homes and spent Shabbat together during a weekend retreat in the Marin Headlands.

“I thought it would be really scary to live at the home of a stranger, but it has been so much fun,” Fischer said. “When I will be back in Israel I will miss them so much.”

The cultural exchange is part of the school twinning program, a project of the Israel Center’s Israel Education Initiative.

The program pairs a Bay Area Jewish day school with an Israeli school. Teachers at the schools work together to develop parallel curricula; students correspond with one another, sharing informal e-mails and formal class projects in an effort to personalize the relationship between Israeli and diaspora Jews.

“I am surprised we are so domim, so alike,” said Dror Zipori, a Reali student.

Teachers say that the Israelis and Americans equally benefit from the partnership. The Israeli students, introduced to pluralistic Judaism for the first time, get an up-close, wide-angle look at a Judaism that is inclusive, welcoming and egalitarian.

Meanwhile, the Wornick students learn what life is really like in Israel, and how to incorporate Israeli culture and history into all aspects of the curriculum, not only during Judaic studies.

Overall, the partnership asks students and teachers to consider how they fit within a global Jewish people.

“We take them out of the history books,” said Marit Shmargad, the director of Hebrew and Judaic studies at Wornick.

“We are creating a generation, and they have to know it’s in their hands, where we go as a Jewish people.”

The Israel Education Initiative engages four Bay Area Jewish day schools — Wornick, the Brandeis Hillel Day Schools in San Rafael and San Francisco and Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto.

It is a joint project of the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Israel Engagement Network (Makom), founded by the Jewish Agency for Israel. The initiative is supported by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the Koret Foundation, the federation and the BJE.

School twinning costs about $50,000 per pair of schools per year. The money is given to the partnership, not to one school or the other, and together they must determine how to use their resources.

“It’s a different model — it’s not the American Jew giving money to Israel,” said Ilan Vitemberg, associate director of the Israeli Education Initiative.

Wornick was the first school to participate in the program, and has worked with Reali for the past five years.

The partnerships focus on peoplehood and pluralism. First the principals of both schools begin working together, then the teachers, then the students and, eventually, the parents.

That way, everyone involved in the school communities will have a personal connection to the Jewish state and to a pluralistic Judaism.

“More and more people understand that the way to make Israeli or Jewish curriculum relevant is by making a personal connection. If students don’t have a personal investment, it won’t fly,” Vitemberg said.

“They can learn about 1948 as much as their teachers want them to, but only once they know that they have friends in Haifa who have parents who were there will they be invested.”

Yet these history and cultural lessons extend beyond the classroom.

Carol Tabb, a parent of two Wornick students, recalled one evening while hosting three Israeli students that she overheard hysterical laughter coming from her daughter Shai’s bedroom.

When she went upstairs to see what all the giggling was about, she found Shai, her little brother and the three Israelis huddled around her laptop and scrolling through a Web site with a list of phobias, trying to translate them from English into Hebrew and rolling with laughter in the process.

Tabb was touched by the teenagers’ fast friendship.

The next day at school — the day before the Reali students would fly back to Israel — Shai Tabb sat in a circle with her peers. A teacher passed a microphone around the circle so that students from both schools could share aloud what they learned during the cultural exchange.

“We may live in two different places,” Shai said, “but we both believe in the same things.”

“Like what?” a teacher asked.

“Like tolerance of others,” Shai said, “and kindness to everyone.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.