The power of people-to-people experiences 

I am seldom speechless, and yet last month I found myself without words as I witnessed 150 guests from Israel arrive on our campus at San Diego Jewish Academy, the K-12 community day school with an early childhood center where I am head of school. 

The 130 juniors and seniors from Sha’ar HaNegev Regional High School in southern Israel, accompanied by teachers, counselors and mental health professionals, were from communities that were devastated by the Oct. 7 attacks. Ironically, traveling across the world brought them physically closer to each other — they had had little if any opportunity to interact with one another since that horrific day because they were relocated to some 22 communities across Israel. 

When they exited their buses onto our campus, they ran up to our SDJA students and emotionally embraced them — it was like a reunion, not a first-time meeting. All of these young people, Israelis and American Jews, needed to be with one another. Undoubtedly, the Israelis craved the warmth and support of our welcoming community, but I began to understand something on that first day that was reaffirmed for me each day of our guests’ 10-day visit: our SDJA community needed this moment just as much, if not more, than our guests. 

Sha’ar HaNegev and San Diego’s Jewish communities established close ties more than for 25 years ago, and last year the city of San Diego and Sha’ar HaNegev formalized a sister city relationship. Since Oct. 7, we had been aching to do something tangible to support the Sha’ar HaNegev community. My colleagues in Israel were busy fighting to protect their communities, relocating their population and building a functional educational network to support the displaced, all while they were also burying their dead and worrying about family and friends who were taken by the terrorists, many of whom are still held hostage. At some point in late October, they responded to my offer to help in any way I could with the idea of bringing students to SDJA. Thanks to the support of the Israeli Ministry of Education, Jewish Federation of San Diego and others, along with the hospitality of local families, the creativity of our faculty and staff and countless hours of planning and scheduling by Shani Abed, our school’s director of community engagement, we made it happen. 

From left: Heidi Gantwerk, president and CEO of Jewish Federation of San Diego, and Zvi Weiss, head of school at San Diego Jewish Academy, with students from SDJA and Sha’ar HaNegev Regional High School. Liat Feco/San Deigo Jewish Academy

For years, Jewish leaders have grappled to deploy the appropriate hooks to convince future generations to remain in the fold and continue supporting the notion of a Jewish homeland. In a world where commonality or value of religious belief and practice is not found across the Jewish people, the notion of “peoplehood” became the key to promoting belonging and continuity. In parallel, as educators have struggled with how to reframe Israel education for a generation that was increasingly taking the miracle of Jewish statehood for granted, building Jewish identity and appreciation of Israel through people-to-people relationships became an obvious approach.

In this context, projects involving twinning between Israeli and American Jewish schools became an important strategy for Jewish schools. I am well aware of the challenges of building connections between youth from the two communities: it takes a lot of foresight and planning, selection of just the right matches, and carefully curated programming to actually achieve meaningful interaction between groups. 

Given the short timeline leading to the arrival of our Israeli students, we had neither the time nor the bandwidth to prepare in this way. It simply did not matter — it was obvious to all involved that this was not just another twinning project. 

Without prompting, SDJA students immediately broke the ice on that first day and invited Israeli students to join them for lunch. Together, as one large cohesive group, they talked and played sports. Within hours, they were actively listening to each others’ perspectives in classes and in workshops on Jewish Identity. Shortly thereafter, host families were referring to their guests as their own personal children and expressing concern about whether there would be pillows for the Israelis’ overnight camp experience. Other families who were late to sign up to host were clamoring for an opportunity to do so for at least a few nights. 

The presence of the Israeli students in our classes, their interactions with our students and host families, and the genuine connections forged with each community member quickly turned us into one big family. Witnessing the exchange of stories, the shared laughter and even the tears shed together was truly inspiring. Through sightseeing, joint workshops, engaging in tikkun olam projects, memorable trips, parties and connecting with host families, bonds were formed that transcended cultural boundaries.

One parent’s personal reflections illustrate the impact this visit had on our families:

“Our family felt so fortunate to have had the opportunity to host 4 girls from Shaar HaNegev. Our time together ranged from the fun and silly moments, where we laughed about how excited they were to browse the household cleaning aisle at Target, to joyful ones singing “Shalom Alechem” together at our Shabbat table, to some heartbreaking ones hearing about the tragic losses they have suffered on and since Oct. 7. 

Ofek, Gali, Goni and Naama each shared their own unique stories in straightforward and vulnerable ways. They shared what it was like to be raised in such close proximity to the Gaza border, and how from early ages they learned how to behave during a Tzeva Adom, or Red Alert, when missiles from Gaza would be fired at their kibbutzim while they swam in the pool, sat in school or played outside with their friends. They explained how childhood playground games like ‘Red Light, Green Light’ had a different feel when they had to drop to the ground and cover their heads or make a mad dash to the nearest shelter waiting and hoping the Iron Dome would keep them safe from the barrage of missiles. 

They described what Oct. 7 was like for them, the moment they understood the horror that this Tzeva Adom was different than the hundreds they had experienced earlier in their lives. We cried together when they shared fractions of what came later, and my heart broke knowing these girls were not even sharing the whole terrifying ordeal to protect my daughter from the terror, and maybe even to protect my husband Paul and me.

It was inspiring to see that even though they carry this trauma with them they still at heart were teenage girls, getting ready to go dance at a party with the entire delegation of Israeli kids and SDJA students. Our 16-year-old daughter Sarah now feels like her Israeli family has grown by the addition of these four new sisters, and we are already sending WhatsApp messages back and forth with the girls’ parents with hopeful plans to visit them when we are in Israel. Sadly, two of the families still have not yet been able to return to their homes; but I look forward to a day to come soon when they are back in beautiful Shaar HaNegev, hosting us for tea in their garden and we continue the connection created over the past two weeks.”

The medieval poet and philosopher Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi wrote: “My heart is in the East, and the rest of me at the far edge of the West.” Many of us have been living this sentiment with great intensity since Oct. 7, experiencing vicarious trauma and feeling desperate to take action. As our entire student body joined with our Israeli friends one last time in a closing ceremony, we laughed, waved flags, hugged, cried and said goodbye and see you later. Our director of community engagement put it best: “What struck me most was the power of our entire community coming together. In giving and receiving, both sides experienced a profound impact. The friendships forged during this visit are not fleeting; they are bonds that will last a lifetime.”

I am convinced that more of these experiences — both on a large and small scale — will strengthen Jewish peoplehood and add meaning to each participant’s life. Post-Oct. 7, people in Israel and the Diaspora are craving these interactions and the opportunity to build deep personal relationships with each other. For years we talked about the Israel-Diaspora divide. In a cruel twist, because of all that Israelis are enduring and the antisemitism that Diaspora Jews are experiencing, that divide feels smaller than it has in decades. Funders and community leaders should look for more ways to facilitate cross-community exchanges among people of all ages, but especially between the young people who will lead us into a thriving Jewish future.

Zvi Weiss is head of school at San Diego Jewish Academy.