Visiting Tucson during the week of Hanukkah, four Israeli teachers and three school principals from the Partnership2Gether region were most surprised by the effort local community members invest in maintaining their Jewish identity. “It was a very powerful experience,” says Ravit Gedanken, a principal at Netzach Israel school in Kiryat Malachi. “It was a privilege to see how different and special this Jewish community is, compared to Israel. Understanding that here they work so hard to have a Jewish life makes my connection to Tucson even stronger.”
The visiting group members were fellows of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Weintraub Israel Center and the Tucson Jewish Community Center’s Partnership2Gether’s school twinning program. This curriculum connects classrooms at preschools, elementary schools and high schools in Hof Ashkelon and Kiryat Malachi with local counterparts at Tucson Hebrew Academy, and synagogue religious schools in Tucson.
“The most meaningful thing was meeting the teacher I’ve been working with the last five years,” says Nesia Regev Livne, a first-grade teacher at Hofim Elementary in Yad Mordechai. “It has real significance when you can meet people face to face. I also felt connected to the values of the Tucson Jewish Community Center, seeing how they practice Jewish values in a secular environment.”
During their visit, the delegation shadowed teachers at the Tucson J’s early education center and visited THA, Sky Island Public Charter High School, and Canyon View Elementary School in the Catalina Foothills Unified School District.
“We were really surprised that the public schools are so excellent,” says Gedanken. “I was very impressed with how professional the teachers, schools and synagogues work from the educational side. And, how much effort is put into children’s Sunday schools to keep their Jewish identity. With all this effort, they looked really happy to be engaged.”
Nili Cohen Hammer, a second-grade teacher from Nitzanim School, was struck by the order and rules in local schools. “This is very opposite with what we are used to. They show a lot of respect for the teachers and rabbis. When I return to my school, I would like to talk to students about how the system works here.”
The delegation expressed interest in class structures and school procedures, says Canyon View Elementary principal Robert Henikman. “Lining up and not running in the hallways are things we take for granted.” On the other hand, Henikman was excited to hear that Israeli schools practice things like inclusion models in their classrooms. “Some things I thought were unique to the U.S. system. It is interesting to see that although we are thousands of miles apart, the similarity we have in values and goals for getting kids through the system is the same.”
The delegation also learned about the Tucson Jewish community through visits to the Jewish History Museum and synagogues. They enjoyed local attractions, hiking in Sabino Canyon and touring the Winterhaven festival of lights. A unique opportunity came to attend the Phoenix Suns Jewish Heritage Night in Phoenix and to join in various community holiday celebrations. Hammer said the group was shocked by the size and diversity of the Tucson Jewish community.
Daniealla Cohen and Ofra Gueta summed up their experience in a joint response. “We must say, this is something that makes a true connection between our communities. Now, we have a better understanding of the importance of the partnership relationship. It enriched our own Jewish identities to experience this, as well,” they wrote.
Cohen, Hofim School’s principal, and Gueta, a kindergarten teacher Aviv School in Talmei Yaffe, parted with a Mahatma Gandhi quote: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world,” saying they now feel this encapsulates the partnership program.
Also joining the delegation were Avi Hadad, Hirael School principal from Kiryat Malachi, and Adi Shacham, the Partnership2gether coordinator.
Local community members opening their homes to host the delegation included Kim Spitzer, Allie Silber, Emily and Max Ellentuck, Gila Silverman, Tamar and Yoni Green, Danielle and Paz Sharian, Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon and Rabbi Ruven Barkan.
“One of the things we liked most was the people, the way they welcomed us and their true willingness to know each one of us as individuals,” says Cohen. “Even as different countries, we are all in the same humanity boat.”
Henikman summed up the visit nicely. “In the end, we’re all about the children and their future.”