Israeli educators visit St. Louis as part of U.S.-Israel program

Marina Rubinstein, a first grade teacher at the Arazim School in Yokneam, talks with students at B’nai Amoona on Sunday. Rubinstein was one of four Israeli educators who visited St. Louis  as part of  the Kesher B’Kitah school twinning program. Photo:  Kristi Foster

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Four Israeli educators will fly back to Israel tomorrow after a tour of St. Louis’s educational scene courtesy of the Kesher B’Kitah school twinning program.

“I learned about the life of Jewish people here, of Jewish children in the schools, about education,” said Marina Rubinstein, a teacher at Arazim School. “We visited and observed many lessons in these schools and I will take with me the daily life of the Jewish community.”

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Rubinstein was one part of the quartet of teachers who visited various Jewish day and congregational schools in the area as well as one public school, Green Trails in Chesterfield. The “Teacher Xchange” initiative is one aspect of the larger Kesher B’Kitah program, a Jewish Federation-funded effort that has matched St. Louis schools and congregations with counterparts in Israel through the local Central Agency for Jewish Education (CAJE). Its goal is to promote cross-cultural projects and communication between their respective teachers and students.

The second stage of the exchange will take place in March when five St. Louis area educators will travel to Israel.

Rubinstein, 35, said she hoped to implement some of what she learned in St. Louis at home, but she also saw it as a way to build linkages with her counterparts here.

“I want to strengthen our relationship from my country, my students, my school with the Jewish students here in St. Louis,” said the educator, who was enjoying her second visit to the United States. “Our schools are connected and I wanted to strengthen these bonds.”

Sima Nisselbaum, director of the department of education in Yokneam said that for her, the trip had both a personal and a professional aspect. Her husband was an American who made aliyah in his early 20s.  The couple, who are culturally Jewish, had worked hard to pass along their heritage while living part of the time in Israel and part of the time in the U.S.

“It was very important for us that our children will know the Jewish roots, the Jewish books, everything about Judaism,” she said. “On the other hand, we didn’t want to force them to practice religion because we are not religious.

“It’s nice for me to look at the Jewish people and the diaspora from both sides, from here and there,” she added.

Nisselbaum said that in Israel, there is a hard cultural division between people who are strongly religious and those who are not. That’s different, she added, from the Jewish community in the U.S. where many flavors of the faith are found. She said Israeli religious life is slowly becoming more diverse, however.

“I think that’s a good influence,” said the 51-year-old, who served as principal at Daliyot School until early this year. “People who have visited America came back and found out that there are more ways to practice Judaism than either be Orthodox or secular.”

For Smadar Akari, a principal at Hatikva School in Elyakim, it all boiled down to one word – pluralism. She said that the strict divisions in Israeli religious education were not as firm here.

“Here we see many options to learn in a Jewish school,” she said.

Akari would like to broaden the range of learning options at her home school. She said she got some ideas about how to do so after visiting Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School.

“We are an Orthodox school and next year, we want to open a first class with Orthodox and Conservative,” she said citing Mirowitz and a similar school in Jerusalem as a model. “Today, I have seen that.”

Sigal Bar, 42m educational staff counselor and social coordinator at Yokneam’s Tiddur School, said she was deeply impressed with a bar mitzvah she witnessed at Shaare Zedek Synagogue where both men and women played leadership roles.

An even more emotional moment came when Bar visited Mirowitz during prayer.

“I was crying because the children were praying like that and it was very touching,” she said, adding she found it interesting how successfully Jewish educators at Mirowitz blended secular and religious education.

Nisselbaum said she felt the trip would help her as she sought a “global way” to expand education in Yokneam. She thinks the American experience is particularly instructive with regard to Jewish identity since Jews are a minority here. She found herself impressed with how hard Jews in St. Louis worked to inculcate the values of their culture.

“Being Jewish in Israel, it’s taken for granted,” she said. “Everything is Jewish around you so you don’t pay attention to different aspects of being Jewish. Here, being a minority, it’s a challenge on the one hand and on the other, you get the chance to be aware and put it on the agenda all the time.”

She thinks that American and Israeli Jews have much to learn from one another. She was also glad to go on the trip for another reason.

“For me as an Israeli…I think it’s a good way to know that we have friends,” she said. “In Israel, we are there in a very small country, in danger sometimes. It’s calming to know that we have more friends overseas.”