Over the course of the 2018-19 school year, kindergarten students at the Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community school and the Goldsmith Early Childhood Center at Chizuk Amuno Congregation participated in PJ ABC, a program that connects Jewish families in Baltimore with pre-school and kindergarten-aged children in Ashkelon through shared experiences and practicing Jewish values.
On Friday morning, the Lower School at Beth Tfiloh held an assembly with its three kindergarten classes. The joyful group sang songs and presented a check for the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, which in addition to treating those wounded by rocket attacks from Gaza, is a frequent target during such attacks. The money was collected in a tzedakah box during the school year.
In 2003, The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore began a sister-city partnership with Ashkelon, a coastal Israeli city 44 miles west of Jerusalem. During the 15-plus years of partnership, thousands of Ashkelonians and Baltimoreans have connected through volunteerism, joint ventures and projects, shared meals and friendship. Annually, The Associated budgets $1 million annually to programs in the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership.
As part of recent efforts, The Associated and the Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education (CJE) facilitated “people-to-people” programming that makes educational connections between Baltimoreans and Ashkelonians from pre-K to high school.
It’s likely that many of the Beth Tfiloh kindergarteners are unaware of the May 3 rocket attacks on Ashkelon, during which Bazilai Medical Center was struck. According to facilitators of the program, many of the kindergarteners’ Israel partners needed to seek shelter during the attack. The hospital was chosen as the beneficiary well before the May 3 attacks, but for the adults involved — PJ ABC coordinators, teachers, and families of students — the kindergarteners’ gift is extraordinarily timely.
“Jewish history is heavy, and Jewish present is heavy,” said Sam Hopkins, Israel program coordinator for CJE. “We have discussions in our department all the time, about how to soften the introduction of reality while making sure that the kids get that reality.”
Joan Vander Walde works as a coordinator with CJE for the Shevet Achim program, a three-year school “twinning” partnership between five schools in each city. In Baltimore, Krieger Schechter Day School, The Ohr Chadash Academy, and the religious schools at Bolton Street Synagogue, Beth El Congregation and Beth Israel Congregation all participate in Shevet Achim. During the program students make personal connections with their international counterparts, have discussions on Israeli and Diaspora Jewish identity and take part in a culminating project at the close of the third year. The program is now in the second year of the second three-year partnership.
Vander Walde and Hopkins work in the same department at CJE. Along with the PJ ABC programming, Hopkins also coordinates Tweens Read, a program that brings teens from each city together through their love of reading. So far, the Rosenbloom Religious School at Chizuk Amuno Congregation is the only Baltimore school participating in the program. Vander Walde said the people-to-people CJE programming focuses strongly on the connections between students and families and that the education comes as a product of that connection.
“Our premise is that if you open your heart to someone, your mind opens also,” Vander Walde said. “The kids in Ashkelon are beginning to understand that there is a Jewish community in Baltimore that not only really cares about them, but in one way is really striving hard to be Jewish and to affiliate with the Jewish people.”
According to Dina Dresin, a pre-K and kindergarten teacher at Beth Tfiloh, students and their families take many opportunities to contact their Israeli partners.
“When we had a snow day, I sent out a message to say ‘This is a great opportunity to talk to your friends from Israel,’” Dresin said. The Ashkelonian kindergarteners partnered with her class have never experienced snow, so seeing their Baltimore friends outside playing in snow was a meaningful experience for them, according to Dresin.
The same is true in reverse. Dresin said that her students were equally enchanted by seeing videos and images of their partnered Ashkelonian families spending Shabbat on the beach. This provided her with the opportunity to show her class where Ashkelon is on a map of Israel.
Dresin has taught kindergarten and pre-K classes at Beth Tfiloh for 11 years. Although the PJ ABC program is very new — this year was only the second time Beth Tfiloh offered the program — Dresin believes in its potential.
“My goal for the kindergarteners is for them to love Hebrew and the land of Israel,” said Dresin. “This gives them a benefit. They say, ‘I love Israel because I have a friend there. I don’t just love Israel because its Israel. I love Israel because I have a friend there, and they do the same things that I do.’”
The programs, though specifically catered to different age groups, have similar structures and impacts. According to Esti Dei, coordinator of the Shevet Achim program in Ashkelon, part of the first year of the program is spent identifying commonalities, like tastes in music or TV.
“As Jewish people we want our kids to be aware that there are Jews all around the world and they behave just like us,” said Dei. “The kids love it so much. They wait for us to do those lessons. The fact that they have a friend in America is very special to them.”
Dresin similarly described a spirited interaction between a pair of kindergarteners after they discovered they play with the same toys. Both the American and Israeli kindergartener were surprised to learn that the other country sold My Little Pony toys.
Vander Walde said that Tu B’Shevat is an especially interesting topic to discuss, because it presents an opportunity for students to learn about the seasonal differences between Baltimore and Ashkelon.
“If the kids are learning about Tu B’Shevat, one might say, ‘Why do we celebrate Tu B’Shevat in February? Nothing’s blooming.’ And then their friends send them pictures of the almond trees with the blooms, and then they get it. It’s that sense of reality of not just religious observance but with the concept of how can I have two homes?”
Many Jewish federations in cities across the U.S. facilitate relationships with sister Israeli cities. Examples include Beersheba and Seattle; Tel Aviv and Philadelphia; and Jerusalem and New York. According to Hopkins, Vander Walde and Dei, the Baltimore/Ashkelon partnership serves as a model for other cities.
“I can tell you that I don’t need to come to Baltimore to see how strong the connection between Baltimore and Ashkelon is,” said Esti Dei, who has been to Baltimore three times. “Last week we had sirens and rockets in Ashkelon and the people in Baltimore sent us so many emails and What’sApp messages, and videos for the kids. You see that there is such a strong connection between them. They were really worried about us. We’re like a big family.”
Vander Walde confirmed Dei’s assertion by telling her own story of reaching Dei during an attack.
“In November I was at an Israel center conference when the bombs starting falling in Ashkelon. I ran out and quickly What’sApp’d Esti, and I see pictures of her in her shelter,” Vander Walde said. She turned around and said she saw, “that 17 other people were doing the same thing with their connections over there.”
Dei, who has five children, described the disorienting effect having to shelter her family during rocket attacks.
“I can’t explain the feeling when you are just starting Shabbat and you hear a siren and you have to run to the shelter. The booms this time were so strong that it was really scary,” she said. “You’re in your house for a few days, and you’re frustrated and you can’t do anything. It’s not so easy for us and the kids to change from one situation to the other.”
According to Hopkins, connecting the families is what’s most important about these programs. The academics are secondary.
“What this program does, boldly, as a people-to-people partnership, is put that conversation in the families’ control on both sides,” Hopkins said. “There’s the school year outcome, but this isn’t ‘answers in the back of the book’ stuff. This isn’t something to solve. Hopefully the bigger picture of what we call people-to-people learning is that they build something.”
The people-to-people programming works even for Kindergarteners, according to Dresin, because it shatters the notion of difference.
“We think that they are in Israel, and it’s a different world. It really isn’t,” said Dresin. “There are so many more common things than you think.”