By Michelle Cohen
In December 2016, four educators from the Lehigh Valley journeyed to Israel to meet and plan educational programming with their counterparts in Yoav, the Lehigh Valley’s sister region in Israel.
“The purpose [of the trip] was to discuss educational programs that fit into our partnership” with their Israeli counterparts, said trip-goer Alicia Zahn, religious school director at Temple Beth El. As part of the trip, the four educators worked with their counterparts to plan future programs, taught lessons to Israeli children after making a variety of school visits and learned more about kibbutz culture as they explored Israel.
Each educator focused on one project during the trip. Zahn worked with Rena Fraade, director of youth and family learning at Congregation Keneseth Israel, on The Same Moon, a program which enables children in the Lehigh Valley and Yoav to become pen pals. Holly Hebron, a kindergarten teacher at the Jewish Community Center of the Lehigh Valley, tried to figure out lessons that could be taught in both schools to foster an initial bond between the children from both regions. Shobha Muttur, a teacher at the Jewish Day School of the Lehigh Valley, worked on the twinning program between JDS and the Sdot Yoav Primary School.
In the beginning of the four-day trip, the educators visited schools around Yoav to learn about the similarities and differences between schools in the U.S. and schools in Israel, as well as dive deeper into some of the translation difficulties of working in different languages. “[Teaching in Israel] was tough because the teachers had to translate everything for us, so it was making sure the teacher understood what we wanted,” Zahn noted. But it was Hebron who faced the toughest translation challenge, as the students she worked with in Israel had not yet begun learning English.
With this challenge in mind, Hebron planned activities for the children based on the book “Barnyard Dance!” by Sandra Boynton. After loosening up with a dance to a CD enclosed with the book, “the kids broke up into two groups and brainstormed all kinds of things that are on a farm and each kid who wanted to participate picked an animal or something on a farm, and then I recorded them [making] the sounds. I recorded my kids doing [the same activity] ahead of time so they listened to my children after, to hear what ‘like a farm’ sounded like to us and to them. It’s cool because even though it’s two languages, moo is moo. They were very engaged, it was nice,” Hebron said of her activity.
Next, Zahn and Fraade teamed up to deliver a lesson focusing on communication in a third grade class where some of the students participate in The Same Moon program. They introduced a game in which one person in one room makes something, and a runner travels between that person and someone else who reproduces the product after hearing the runner’s directions. After the game concluded, Zahn and Fraade offered tips for clarity in the kids’ next letters, which will be written in English.
Finally, Muttur’s lesson with middle schoolers involved playing a Bingo game that JDS students created to “learn more about JDS, Allentown and America in general. The questions were framed around them, so the kids enjoyed that,” she said. Some of the questions included what town JDS was located in, the name of the biggest amusement park in Allentown, and where the president of the United States lives. Next, she presented the students with “some cards that were made by our kids over here” for Chanukah, and brought some back for her own classes in return.
For the educators who work directly in schools, it was helpful to see how the school system works in Israel and experience school days firsthand. “They spend so much time outside, that was something that stuck out to us,” Hebron said. “They do a lot with planting; they have plants all over their classroom, inside and out. They have a whole area where the seeds are growing and it’s all labeled and everything, a really big area, and outside there’s gardens everywhere. They make art projects scattered among the different gardens, and they planted tons of different things, and it’s all done by the kids and teachers.”
Her observations led her to inquire about the logistics of the planting system. She also noticed similarities between the schools – in Yoav, the students she interacted with were given access to “blankets to build a fort with. [Teachers] let them build it all throughout the week and then on Friday they would tear it down and start over the next week, which is cool because we save our Legos all week, then have a Lego showcase and then tear it down.”
In addition to these experiences, all four educators stayed with host families on kibbutzim in Yoav and learned all about kibbutz life and its evolution over the past 30 years to a modern form where families raise their own children and retain their own possessions, but their wages go the kibbutz, which in turn provides for their needs. They also spelunked in the Beit Guvrin caves, a historical site in Yoav, and spent an evening in Jerusalem and a morning in Tel Aviv.
“During the program we each stayed with a host family, which was really nice because it got us to see how families live in Yoav and helped us get to know the community better,” Zahn said. She also got to reunite with some of the teens she hosted over the summer, who told her the impact the summer had on them.
Hebron, who was as an art teacher at Camp JCC over the summer, rejoiced to reunite with some of the teens she had worked closely with at the camp. Four teens from Yoav spend the summer in the Lehigh Valley every year. “One student was telling me about the different projects he’s done” since camp, she said, including one where he decorated a shelter to make it look less frightening for the younger children.
But for all four participants, the trip’s most important effect was improving relations between colleagues who have never met, but now “feel like they’re family,” Hebron said. She worked with teachers in Yoav to plan joint activities for their classrooms. In their next program, the Israeli kids will take “mud walks” in the rainy winter season, and send pictures to the Allentown kids who will be making weather reports in the snow. At Purim, the classes will exchange pictures in costume, and afterward, both classrooms will be transformed into castles that will then be photographed and compared. “Things with pictures are best because the kids [only] speak Hebrew, but we’re going to try to skype,” Hebron added.
“Getting to fast track building a real relationship with the teachers we work with in Yoav was so meaningful,” Fraade said. “Google Hangouts provides a great option, but having those face-to-face moments, casual conversation, and then focused time to brainstorm program elements was priceless. We were able to better understand the realities of each other’s work to set realistic plans for moving forward, strengthening some elements and building more.”
As for the trip’s most important lesson, “[we] came back very inspired to make sure the partnership will continue,” Zahn said. “Although teachers are constrained by time in school,” this trip reaffirmed that “encouraging this connection is worth our time.”
The trip was “unique and amazing and I appreciated [it], and [am] thankful that this opportunity was presented to me,” Muttur added as she contemplated new plans after a recent activity with her students.
The Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley, which maintains a partnership with Yoav through a program of the Jewish Agency for Israel called Partnership2Gether, provided funding for the trip.
“They were so gracious about our connection,” Hebron said. "When they had the fires two years ago, when there were bombings, they were so appreciative about how much the Federation and the partnership really helps them."
All four educators look forward to continuing to work with their counterparts and bringing a new culture into their classrooms and the Lehigh Valley as a whole.