The School Twinning Program As A Way of Engaging Teens

The School Twinning program also builds relationships beyond the parents and families. The program fosters relationships that involve the entire synagogue and school communities.

by Ahuva Ron

For the last eight years, I have directed the School Twinning program between Los Angeles and Tel Aviv for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. I am writing this in response to the Jim Joseph Foundation Report on “Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens: What Jewish Communities Can Learn from Programs That Work”, as I would like to highlight our highly effective and impactful model of teen engagement.

The School Twinning Program started with four twin schools. Currently, we have 41 schools including 20 in Los Angeles, 20 in Tel Aviv, and one in Vilnius, Lithuania. The main goal of the program is to create relationships between the Jewish students and families in Los Angeles and Tel Aviv. There are several core elements of the program that make it impactful and unique: exchange of student delegations and face-to-face meetings in each other’s communities, home hospitality, joint curriculum/projects with the twin school, community involvement, and local and joint teachers’ seminars with all the American and Israeli educators. The schools that take part in this program are Jewish day and afternoon schools from all denominations. The delegation exchanges are in either sixth, eighth, or tenth grade.

The Jim Joseph Foundation report looked at different teen programs and gave us an overview of effective strategies to engage teens. I would like to suggest the School Twinning program as a way of engaging pre-teens and teens, together with their families, as a wider view of engagement for Jewish youth. While unique in its scope, the School Twinning program is not branded as its own entity; it is embedded within schools and is part of the Jewish Federation. Today, there are 500 schools around the world in this program that are part of The Jewish Agency’s Partnership2Gether initiative.

In this article I would like to focus on three of the key themes mentioned in the JJF report and to look at the School twinning program: 1) as a model of teen involvement, 2) as a pedagogical approach, and 3) as a partnership model.

School Twinning as a Model for Teen Involvement

The JJF report speaks about peer-to-peer engagement. In this program, the framework we use is people-to-people relationships. The relationships are multidimensional; relationships are created between the American teens as a group, the Israeli teens as a group, and between the Americans and Israelis when they come together. Relationships are also created between the families in the local communities and across the ocean, between educators and the schools communities as a whole.

The teens in this case are students in Jewish day and afternoon schools. Through this program, they create deep relationships with Israeli teens and discover that the Israeli teens are just like them in many ways. The exchanges of student delegations involve home hospitality, which creates life-long and reciprocal relationships. We learn from the students that the relationships are not only with their friends from Israel, but also with their classmates. Traveling to Israel together and hosting creates experiences that bond the students in a very special way. This is potentially even more impactful in an afternoon school where the students do not know each other as well. The School Twinning Program is so impactful that it now serves as a recruitment tool for Jewish day and afternoon schools. Teens choose to stay in Jewish day schools so they can participate in the Twinning program, and students continue in afternoon schools beyond their bar/bat mitzvahs in order to travel to Israel and to be able to host an Israeli teen in their home.

I could not agree more with Robyn Faintich, who in her article from May 13, 2013 writes about the importance of engagements with pre-teens. We have 16 schools (eight twins) that send and host sixth-grade delegations. These students are 11-12 years old and are pre-bar/bat mitzvah age. The School Twinning program connects them to Israel and Israelis in a meaningful way. As one of the sixth graders from Temple Israel of Hollywood told us, this program brings to life all what she has learned in school over the years. With pre-teens, we plant a seed that we can see grow over the years. They form relationships with their American peers and with their Israelis buddies like no other age group. At this age, they are still open to new friendships without judgment and they experience it emotionally and from their hearts.

School Twinning as a Pedagogical Approach

The JJF report speaks about pedagogical approaches and educational opportunities for teens. Our educational approach is through experiential Jewish and Israel education. Traveling to Israel and hosting in their home communities give students the opportunity to experience firsthand what we teach in the schools. Each year participating schools have a theme for their delegations and the program coordinators develop itineraries around this theme. Examples of themes have included Tikkun Olam, Leaders and Leadership, or Zionism Today. For the topic of Tikkun Olam, the students read texts about Jewish values and then participate in social action activities. In Leaders and Leadership, the students explore together personal, community based, national and historic examples of leadership and meet with inspiring leaders. For Zionism, the students learn the history, visit significant places, and engage in discussions about what it means to be a Zionist today. Because the delegations are for the Israelis and the Americans together, the discussions are insightful and eye-opening as they include perspectives from both sides. For example, the Israelis come to Los Angeles and see pluralistic Judaism in action and learn about how American Jews live as minorities, a foreign experience for Israelis. In Israel, Americans learn about life in Israel, their counterparts’ army expectations, and what it means to be Jewish and Zionist in Israel, a completely different experience than simply learning about Zionism in the classroom.

To twin with a school in a different country opens the door for teens to be interested in learning about and engaging with Jewish life in a broader world. They get a greater sense of Peoplehood and they become interested in the concept of belonging to a larger Jewish world.

School Twinning as a Model for Partnerships

The JJF report speaks about organizational partnerships. The language we use in this program is community involvement along with partnering and networking between organizations. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles provides staff and financial support for each school that is a part of this program. The Federation staff creates the match between the twin schools and assists with the development of the program, curriculum, joint projects and delegations. A few years ago we started Local Educator Workshops in both Los Angeles and Tel Aviv for the program’s coordinators where we meet five times a year to study the theme for the year and also to share best practices between school coordinators. Over the years, we have developed a strong network among the participating schools, and it has become a prestigious position to be part of this network. Schools help each other and communicate about this program. Teachers from a variety of day and afternoon schools, and from all denominations, come together to share ideas and work through issues together. As a result, they develop relationships that would not happen otherwise. This network of twin schools is important as the JJF report emphasizes that no program can stand alone.

The School Twinning program also builds relationships beyond the parents and families. The program fosters relationships that involve the entire synagogue and school communities. Over the years, the program becomes an integral part of the community as visiting delegations are introduced as guests to the community on Shabbat morning in front of the entire congregation; they also participate in large community events. Synagogue mission trips visit their Tel Aviv twin school, and families in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles often remain connected for life.

The role and support of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles enables the program to be affordable for schools and families. The Federation partners with the parents and the schools in funding the program. While the Federation funds the educational components and ground expenses, the parents on both sides pay for the students’ flights. If needed, the Los Angeles schools add money for any additional budget needs related to their delegations and/or programming.

The School Twinning program engages all participants in the community, including teens, with the Jewish Federation, and through this program, the Jewish Federation is connected to 20 communities in Los Angeles and with Israel.

Conclusion

After working in this program for 16 years, I see the School Twinning program as a vibrant and effective model for teen engagement because it builds relationships between Jewish teens around the world through experiential Israel education. And the program is only growing. About a year ago we developed a new triangle program, adding the Shalom Aleichem School in Vilnius, Lithuania, to a partnership between an afternoon school in Los Angeles and a school in Tel Aviv. Eighth graders from all three countries met in Israel in December 2012 for a 10-day delegation. I believe that, for them, it was an experience that they will never forget. There was nothing else to connect them other than being Jewish teens, and yet, they found so many things in common. This, in my opinion, is teen engagement in action!

Ahuva Ron is Senior Education Director at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. She can be reached at aron@jewishla.org.

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