It was a Friday afternoon as students and parents filed into Rashi’s auditorium. The atmosphere was filled with excitement and energy, but also some apprehension and maybe even a little sadness.
We were saying good-bye to our eighth-grade students who would be gone for two weeks. Destination: Israel.
Through our ongoing relationship with the Leo Baeck School in Haifa, our eighth-graders and their Israeli peers travel and learn together in both Israel and the Boston area. These travels create real and lasting relationships – emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually – between the students and their families. In many cases, the students come to see Boston or Haifa as their second home.
Through this partnership, Rashi students develop a deep engagement with Israel through the study of Israeli culture and history. Similarly, Leo Baeck students experience American culture and history, and the community bonds at Rashi.
Jewish Identity in the 21st Century
One of the important goals of the Boston-Haifa Connection is to promote the development and strengthening of Students’, Parents/Families’, Educators’ and community members Jewish identity and commitment to Jewish peoplehood.
Bud Lichtenstein, Interim Head of School at Rashi, understands that cross-cultural competency is an important skill to develop in this age of global citizenship. “…how wonderful for our children to get to know Jews from Israel – deepening their own understanding of what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century.”
Students from Leo Baeck and Rashi discover that being a Jewish person in this century can have many similarities, but there are also many differences depending on where they reside.
Rabbi Sharon Clevenger explains how Rashi students really want to feel a sense of sameness with their Israeli peers. “They love to discover that they enjoy the same music, foods, sporting teams, and hobbies. We design some of our programs and activities to facilitate that feeling of sameness.”
One Rashi eighth-grader described that sense of sameness she felt when twenty Leo Baeck students visited this fall. “I discovered how similar we Rashi kids were to other teens who live halfway across the planet. From having the same taste in food to the same liking to certain iPhone apps, the possibilities of commonalities have been endless.”
At the same time, though, Rabbi Clevenger says that knowing how they are different from each other is what makes a lasting impression on the students. “We intentionally design activities where such differences will come out, and then we celebrate the discovery of the differences.”
These differences tend to surface during a planned Jewish values activity. For instance, Americans typically put more emphasis on actions such as tikkun olam, while Israelis emphasize character traits, such as honesty. “When we hear kids actually talking about how and why they are different, we feel that we are succeeding,” said Rabbi Clevenger.
Another Rashi eighth-grader explained a surprising difference she observed between the Rashi and Leo Baeck students, which was the way they conducted their Jewish practices. “Before we met them, we had this idea that they would be more religious than we were. We came to find out that it was the opposite.”
Among the many planned activities in Israel, this year marks the first time Rashi and Leo Baeck students will be visiting Tzipori together. Tzipori is an ancient city where most of the Jews were highly assimilated under Roman rule.
“It’s an awesome place to talk about assimilation today, and what it is like to be an American Jew,” said Rabbi Clevenger. “This is our first time visiting Tzipori with the Israelis. We hope that the students will deeply engage in the discussion about assimilation. For American kids, assimilation is almost natural – they don’t even notice how they balance soccer and Shabbat. For Israeli kids, living in an immersive Jewish society makes assimilation almost unnecessary.”
For the past few years, Rashi students who have been to Israel through the Rashi-Leo Baeck program have increasingly spent a “gap year” or semester abroad in Israel.
In fact, “Of the eighth-grade students surveyed last year, half stated that their trip to Israel made them more likely to do a gap year or study abroad during college,” said Rabbi Clevenger.
The impactful connection between Rashi and Leo Baeck students, as well as personal growth, is truly exceptional.
An eighth-grader sums it up by saying: “This past week was one of the best weeks of my life. It was both an opportunity for making lifelong friendships and exploring myself as a Jewish person.”