Trading Places

In a unique effort to redefine the future relations between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, 14 Israeli 10th-graders arrived last week to participate in what may be the first student-exchange program between Israeli schools and a non-Orthodox Los Angeles Jewish day school.

But the Milken Community High School program is far more ambitious than this, according to Yoav Ben-Horin, the school’s director of special projects and coordinator of this program. It is part of an overall “twinning” of Tichon Hadash, a 60-year-old creative and pluralistic high school known for its warmth and informality, with Milken, said to be the country’s largest non-Orthodox high school.

In addition to sending a group of Milken 10th-graders to Tichon Hadash next February, the twinning effort includes the goal of developing some parallel curricula, video conferencing, a joint commemoration of the third anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination this November, and much more in the years ahead.

The student exchange is the most important element of this broader exchange, Ben-Horin said. In the past, most “exchanges” have tended to be nonreciprocal, with American Jewish youngsters going to Israel, where they lived and learned with other Americans in specifically designed programs. Although such programs are valuable, the Milken educator said, “what distinguishes this [one] is it will try to integrate the students in each other’s curriculum and lives.”

The 15- and 16-year-old Israelis received a rousing welcome, along with blue balloons and school T-shirts, at the opening-day assembly of the newly expanded Milken campus. A 15th student is due to arrive after Rosh Hashanah.

The teens are staying with host families for the next three months and will experience Jewish holidays from the perspective of American Jews. That promises to be a much different experience than in Israel, said Etty Vered, an English teacher at Tichon Hadash, who accompanied the students on the first leg of their journey.

“Our kids are nonreligious,” Vered said. Going to services to pray on Shabbat and High Holidays will be novel for many of them, since they don’t do it at home. “We take it for granted that we are Jewish [in Israel]. They are born Jewish, and they never have to prove it to anyone…. I think, for many of them, this is the first time they will realize the concept of plurality in Judaism.”

Next February, Milken will return the favor by sending about 15 10th-graders to stay with Tel Aviv families and to attend Tichon Hadash. They will experience Pesach, Yom Haatzmaut (Independence Day) and Yom Ha-Zicharon (Holocaust Remembrance Day) in Israel.

“It’s a historic moment for Los Angeles Jewry to have something like this happen here,” said Metuka Benjamin, director of education at Stephen Wise Temple Schools, of which Milken High School is one. “We’ve talked about it for many years.”

The program is part of the Los Angeles-Tel Aviv Partnership. Now in its first full year of operation, the partnership was the brainchild of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Israel and Overseas Relationships Committee (IORC) and receives some of its funding through the Federation.

“I think it’s crucial for the future of the Jewish people that Jews here and [in Israel] get to know each other as human beings,” said IORC Chair Herb Glaser. Creating that “people-to-people” relationship is the main goal of the Los Angeles-Tel Aviv Partnership, which includes an ambitious range of other educational, cultural, health and human services, and pluralism partnerships and exchanges between the two cities.

On his first day at school, Israeli teen Ravid Ben Ami called the opportunity to live and study in Los Angeles “a once-in-a lifetime opportunity,” which he was excited about, although it was difficult to say goodbye to his family for so long. “We are all very close to our parents,” the 15-year-old said.

Tal Goldenberg, also 15, said that she was very happy with her new family, which includes 11th-grade Milken student Millie Mamer. Tal sees herself as a kind of Israeli goodwill ambassador. “My goal is to make [my family and American friends] feel closer to Israel.”