November 12, 2018

New Rules for L.A./Tel Aviv Student Trips

Israel’s Ministry of Education’s decision this week to change the way student exchange programs are operated and possibly funded could have a significant impact on the exchange programs that exist between Jewish day schools in Los Angeles and Tel Aviv, among others.

The 19 LA/TA programs — the largest network of exchange programs between Israeli and Diaspora schools — are part of the Los Angeles Federation’s Partnership 2000 model.

According to a ministry spokesperson, the new rules state that Israeli students traveling abroad must do so during school vacations, and that municipalities, not parents, must come up with the money — up to $1,000 to Los Angeles per child — for the trips. The new standards do not apply to Holocaust trips, which can cost as much as $1,600.

Such changes could impact the program’s structure and intent, and Los Angeles Federation representatives are actively advocating the trips at the Ministry of Education, trying to find ways to address the concerns while maintaining the exchange, according to John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

“We are not sure we fully comprehend all of their motivations or whether they have the correct information,” Fishel said Tuesday.

But he added that he is not alarmed. “I’ve been around long enough to know that with Israeli public policy, you need to read between the lines and utilize the facts as well as personal relationships and see whether it is possible to get reconsideration.”

While Israeli educators and many parents involved in the programs say the 12-day visits greatly enhance the Jewish identity, Zionism and sense of people hood among the participants, other parents say the programs are elitist and lacking in enough serious content to warrant two weeks outside the classroom.

A ministry spokesperson told The Jewish Journal that the changes were initiated by Shimshon Shoshani, the director general, after reading some of the parents’ complaints in an article in the Hebrew daily Ha’aretz. Despite the organizers’ good intentions, the parents said, the programs left non-participants feeling marginalized

“Dr. Shoshani researched the issue for a month and found that it had merit,” the spokesperson said. “School days are supposed to be for studying, and if Partnership 2000 feels the programs are important, they can run them during our school holidays, such as the eight days of Hanukkah.”

The spokesperson noted that many students staying behind, including sixth-graders, have no opportunity to study in a regular framework during the period their peers are abroad.

“Dr. Shoshani determined that the children going abroad aren’t studying, the children remaining at home aren’t studying, because their teachers are abroad. Then there is the issue of money. Children whose parents can afford it can go to America and those without money can’t. It creates inequality and resentment.”

For the programs to continue, the spokesperson said, “the cities will have to find sources of financing, sponsors, so that all the children who want to go can go.” Students planning to visit the U.S. “in the next month or two” will be permitted to do so, “but after that it will stop,” the spokesperson said.

Eden Fuchs, a Tel Aviv father of three, and of one of the parents most vocally opposed to the exchange programs, says he first became disenchanted with them after his oldest son returned from a TA/LA trip some eight years ago.

“My son was a sixth-grader at the Magen elementary school, and he had a great time on the visit to L.A.,” Fuchs recalled. “When I asked him how it was, he replied, ‘It was wonderful. We went to Disneyland and to Universal Studios and to an NBA game and to the Venice Beach.’ I asked about the Jewish aspects of the trip. He told me about the morning prayers. It was clear that for my son, who’s like most other kids, the sightseeing far outweighed the Jewish benefits.”

It was only later, Fuchs said, that he began to think about the exchange program’s financial implications.

“We’re not wealthy, but we could afford it. But what about the many families that couldn’t? The school told me that scholarships are available but for how many students? One or two? That still leaves 50 or 60 kids left behind. No one would answer how much the trips cost and how much scholarship money was available. The kids who don’t go are made to feel that they’re not cool, like they’re unworthy.”

Fuchs said that he and a handful of other parents began to openly question the programs during the spring of 2009, and that the group now has “tens” of disgruntled parents as well as a Website. When the group contacted local school officials, “they told us not to rock the boat.” They had not yet contacted the Education Ministry when “someone leaked our concerns to the newspaper,” he said.

Fuchs wants the ministry to ban all outgoing overseas trips for Israeli elementary school children “because they are too young to truly benefit from them.”

Dalia Peleg, another Magen School parent who has been active in the TA/LA partnership for a decade, has a completely different take on the exchange program.

“I think it’s very important, on both sides. You have two entities, very different from the other, and yet through a year-long series of projects that ends with a face-to-face encounter, they get to know each other and themselves.”

When Tel Aviv kids travel to Los Angeles and vice versa, Peleg said, “it puts up question marks about who and what you are. How do you define yourself? This trip triggers a lot of internal thoughts. Sure they go to Disneyland. But they also spend time in schools, in shuls; they do volunteer work. They go to the Museum of Tolerance and learn about Jewish life outside Israel. The advantages outweigh the disadvantages.”

Peleg disputes claims that children have been unable to participate due to lack of funds.

The Los Angeles Partnership, she said “has fully subsidized kids and even given pocket money so they wouldn’t feel like outsiders. We’ve sent kids living with their mothers in the nearby women’s shelter. We always tell parents, if you can’t afford it, we’ll do our best to help.”

Andrea Arbel, director of the division of partnerships at the Jewish Agency and the representative for the entire Partnership 2000 program, concurs that “the trips are highly subsidized by the local communities and, to the best of my knowledge, no child has ever been turned away for lack of money.”

Arbel was doubtful about the ministry spokesperson’s assertion that families will no longer be asked to contribute. During a meeting with him this week, “the issue of who will pay never came up,” she said.

When Shoshani discussed the problem of mid-year trips, Arbel said that “70 percent” of such exchanges already occur during school breaks. The trips, Arbel said, are “usually the culmination of a year-long project, done in parallel with the use of technology. Nothing is as effective as face-to-face meetings. We know from research and hearing kids when they return home that this is a life-changing experience.”

Without this experience, Arbel said, “you can live in Israel your entire life, be a good Israeli and Zionist, and never realize there is a Jewish people out there that you’re a part of.”

Eshel Peleg, 14, says the time she spent in Los Angeles taught her a great deal.

“I had so much fun and I learned how differently Jews live there. The Jewish schools are private; the communities are private. They are very connected to their Jewish centers because they’re a small community. It made me think about how my family and I are connected to Jewish history and tradition, and to the Jews outside Israel,” Peleg said.

Michele Chabin reported from Jerusalem. Jewish Journal Senior Writer Julie Gruenbaum Fax contributed to this article from Los Angeles.