Fellowship takes Tucson-Israel school twinning to next level

Yochi Azran, a teacher from Israel, uses a ‘sabra’ puppet to talk to Crystal Lucha’s students at the Tucson Jewish Community Center in December 2017.

There are many living bridges forming between Tucson and Israel. One is in the shape of a classroom.

The Weintraub Israel Center began its school twinning program in 2014 between Tucson and the Israeli communities of Kiryat Malachi and Hof Ashkelon as an opportunity to connect classrooms and children thousands of miles apart. There are now 32 classrooms from pre-school to high school involved, with more than 670 kids in both Israel and Tucson bonded together to form relationships and open the door to long-lasting friendships.

From the school twinning program, the teaching fellowship was born. The Weintraub Israel Center enhanced the existent classroom twinning by selecting six teachers from Southern Arizona to go even further with their connections. They participate in seminars and will be visiting Israel in May, while five Israeli teachers visited here in December. The people-to-people aspect the program strives for is seen in the true friendships the teachers have formed and how the marriage of these classrooms brings a little more Israel to Tucson.

“When [the Tucsonans] finish their trip to Israel they will become mentors in their schools to help other teachers in the twinning program,” says Rebecca Crow, who was the chair of the Israel Center’s Partnership2Gether committee for four years and now co-chairs the twinning program with Linda Behr. “These are the teachers who will be the people who spread these ideas, keep other teachers [involved] and develop curriculum.”

Crystal Lucha, a teacher at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, sees the impact the program has on her students. “It’s planting that seed in their minds of this place called Israel,” says Lucha, who had an Israeli teacher visit her kids. “The kids ask about when they can go and visit; when can our teacher that visited come back? The seed that they might want to visit, that’s the living bridge.”

Lucha, who isn’t Jewish and has never been to Israel, appreciates the benefits she’s received in the fellowship program. Where at first she struggled to teach about Israel, she now has success. “The fellowship is great because I meet with other teachers in the program and we talk and exchange curriculum ideas. It enhances me; it’s a great resource,” says Lucha. The curriculum provides her class lesson plans and games that relate to Israeli life. Lucha’s students are young, mostly 5-year-olds, and her implementation of the program is not as intense as in some of the older classrooms, but the living connection is there. “It helps me to find a connection for my students that kids on the other side of the world still like to do the same things we do but it might look a little different.”

Lucha will travel to Israel with the fellowship in May. In December, when Tucson had the privilege of welcoming teachers from Israel, they spent two weeks here, meeting the kids their students had been working with and teaching lessons in the classrooms. They also explored Tucson and even took a trip to Sedona.

“The teachers from Israel were amazing women, totally committed to this program and so committed to the classrooms,” says Crow. “We had a fantastic time showing them around and it was so nice to form that human connection.”

The teachers from Israel feel the same deep connection as the teachers from Tucson. “My personal participation in the journey strengthened my sense of connection to the project, increased my personal commitment to its success, and it was a privilege to meet wonderful people who want to deepen their connection with Diaspora Jewry,” says Limor Aloni, a teacher at the Hofim elementary school in Kibbutz Yad Mordechai in Hof Ashkelon, who was invited to speak about the program at the Israeli Ministry of Education.

“My personal feeling, my connection, and the understanding of the program today is deeper, because the immediate dimension was added to me and the teacher and the students on the other side,” says Aloni.