The gym at the Rosenthal JCC of Northern Westchester in Pleasantville echoed with the steady buzz of more than 100 middle school students, occupied in equal measure with eating vast quantities of kosher Chinese food, texting and chatting.
So what made this particular evening different from other nights of schmoozing? This time, these Westchester pre-teens and teenagers were joined by some Israeli peers as participants in the Rosenthal JCC—Shoham Global Connections program, a cultural exchange initiative funded by UJA-Federation of New York. While Global Connections is a 20-year–old organization, the Rosenthal JCC began participating last September.
“We want them to understand how amazing it is to have Israel,” said Jessica Morgenthal, volunteer director of Global Connections and a vice president on the board of the Rosenthal JCC.
By forging strong personal connections through home stays (in August, 11 Westchester teenagers in the program will travel to Shoham, which is not far from Tel Aviv), casual meals and informal exchanges, the goal is to ultimately develop stronger bonds between diaspora Jews, like those in Westchester, and their Israeli counterparts. And if the process also forms stronger Jewish identities and allegiances to Israel, so much the better.
The 10 young Israelis spent a week in Westchester, staying with local families, attending school with their hosts, shopping at local malls and touring New York City. Their itinerary included Ground Zero, South Street Seaport, The Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Museum of Natural History and the Ackman-Ziff Genealogy Center at the Center for Jewish History. The Israelis, including the students’ chaperones, also had a chance to experience some of New York’s distinctive cultural offerings, like a performance of the Blue Man Group in Greenwich Village and a tour of NBC studios.
With their Westchester peers, the group also spent a Shabbaton at Surprise Lake Camp in nearby Putnam County and participated in a seder for the developmentally disabled at Shaaray Tefila in Bedford Corners.
While the Global Connections is an ongoing program, the purpose of this event was to introduce a wider group of Westchester students to these young Israelis.
Brad Zicholtz, director of youth programs for Temple Shaaray Tefila in Bedford Corners, brought his seventh and eighth graders for the evening.
“Our temple does a lot of Israel programming,” he said. “We’ve had exchanges before. There’s a strong tradition of Israel programming, so it’s not a hard sell.”
Zoe Moskowitz, a sixth grader from Chappaqua, who belongs to Bet Torah in Mount Kisco, said, “I joined to meet Israeli people, and learn more about my ancestors. It’s really fun, the meetings, and I’m excited to go to Israel.”
Similarly, Ben Morgenthal, a seventh-grader from Byram Hills and a member of Temple Shaaray Tefila, said that he participated “to learn more about my Jewish heritage, and meet Israelis and connect with them.”
Sometimes the connections are even more personal than the organizers anticipated.
“It’s good for the kids,” said Mark Reisman, whose daughter Beth has been involved with the program. These activities “give them a chance to relax and compare their lives.”
Since his wife is Israeli, the family travels to Israel every few years — and by coincidence, even has relatives in Shoham.
Beth Reisman, an eighth grader at Solomon Schechter’s middle school, added, “It’s been a cool experience. I know a bunch of people in the town, and some of them know my cousins. They’re similar — they go to school like us, they shop at the same places, like H&M, the Gap, Zara. But they’re more independent. They can walk everywhere. It’s more casual.”n
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