by Hope Chernak
Four years ago, I traveled to Israel to meet Israeli teens from Ohel Avraham-Leo Baeck Education Center who were to participate in the first year-long mifgash with teens from Shaaray Tefila in NYC. I remember I was quite nervous about how the teens from Haifa would take to me.
Would they like me? Would we would connect? What would we talk about? Within minutes, I was reminded that the working with teenagers had no borders. I made connections easily, and those relationships were very authentic. Within a short time, my relationship with the Haifa teens became as strong as if they were members of the Shaaray Tefila Youth group, TaSTY, which whom I work.
Today, the Israel Religious Action Center arranged a special trip for members from ARZA to the Abdullah Ibn Al-Hussain Secondary girls school from East Jerusalem. I had some trepidation that maybe I wouldn’t connect with the girls during this short visit. On our bus ride to the school, I thought that perhaps politics would get in the way of us connecting, or maybe they just wouldn’t be interested in meeting with me. After all, it was the end of their school day.
Once we arrived, we were split into different groups, and I had the opportunity to spend time with five smart and engaging teen girls. They were in an advance class where English was not foreign to them. Out of the five girls, one spoke English with confidence, and she volunteered to translate and assist me with our conversation.
IRAC tasked us with teaching the girls “English” using Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech from August of 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. After meeting the girls and doing a quick icebreaker, I realized that this text was going to be quite dense, so I decided I would incorporate it a little but would not make it the focus of our conversation. It was a good conversation starter after our mixer.
We focused on the beginning:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”
And then we focused near the end of his speech:
“And this will be the day– this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning.”
I found out quickly that these girls also wanted to live in a world where the color of skin didn’t make a difference, and they agreed with my own dreams for peace everywhere, not just in the Middle East.
When they asked me about my religion, without hesitating, I said I was Jewish. One girl, without waiting very long responded enthusiastically with, “I love Jews.” I admit, I wasn’t expecting any response right away, and I thought perhaps they would just stare at me until they had another question or comment to share with me. I responded immediately with “Well, I love you.” The girls smiled; even more proverbial ice broke between us.
Through the translations, the conversation continued to flow naturally. These girls had big dreams of their own. They wanted meaning in their lives, and they had aspirations for their future. I asked them what they wanted to focus on during their adulthood, and they responded: an astronaut, a teacher, an actress, a mathematician. A few of them said they wanted to visit the U.S. one day (though they made it clear they wouldn’t want to live there).
When they asked me why I was in Israel, I recognized that a detailed explanation about the Reform Jewish Movement and WZO would have taken at least 30 minutes. Instead, I explained that I am a teacher in New York City, visiting Israel to learn more about all cultures here. It was easier to skip the details, but I added to my explanation that I am a Jew from the United States who was visiting them because I believe in peace and equality. They all nodded their heads.
Once the conversation seemed to take a natural break, one girl asked for a selfie and the rest followed suit. Even one took a Snapchat photo!
My eyes welled up near the end of our time together as I realized that I would most likely never see these girls again – but I left feeling inspired and hopeful.
I regretted not writing down the girls’ names or sharing any contact info with them, so afterward, I ran after their teacher to thank her once again for allowing me to spend time with her amazing and bright students. I left her my email address in case any of their students wanted to keep in touch with me or interested in having a pen pal with one of the teens from Shaaray Tefila.
After my visit with the students, my group gathered outside to spend a few moments with the principal of the school, Sana Atari. She told us of some of the struggles the students go though each day to get to school (e.g. checkpoints) and elaborated on the ways that these girls’ lives girls can be very difficult in Jerusalem. She shared sharing a story about one student injured in a recent attack, who was recovering at Hadassah Hospital (and whose parents may have been denied access to visit her).
It was sobering for me to hear difficult stories from the principal after having such a positive experience in the classroom with the girls.
I left this afternoon seeing a different side of Israel. My eyes were widened to some of the complications happening right now in Jerusalem, but I also saw that the language of teens can be universally without borders. My time with the girls was not just comfortable – I felt as if I were running a youth group lounge night back home!
My final message to the students – after our selfies, of course – was for them to remember to reach for the stars, don’t let anyone tell them they can’t do anything they want to do or be, and to hope and pray for peace for us all. At least for one small moment, we connected and shared a dream – a dream that even Dr. King, had he joined us on this visit, surely would’ve echoed.
Hope Chernak, RJE, is the director of youth and informal education at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City.