(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Tal-Or Cohen, 15, of the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy (MJBHA), a Jewish high school in Rockwell, Maryland, insisted that her school mission trip to Israel include a visit to Kiryat Shmona, she had no idea that a personal connection with the northern border town already existed.
Plenty of Jewish schools send groups to visit Israel, but two months ago nearly the entire body of MJBHA students participated in a 10-day mission. This overwhelming show of solidarity, reported in The Jerusalem Post on January 22 ('Entire US high school due in Israel for 10-day mission'), was no typical school trip. "The high-schoolers' tastes and dreams went into the planning stage as each pupil was offered a choice of five alternative daily routes," explained Rabbi Avi Levitt, the principal of MJBHA. "We worked eight hours poring over the question forms to give each kid the best response to his preferences."
The 10 days included time for hessed - charitable activities such as replanting burned trees in the north or meeting disabled pupils. This created a feeling of involvement more intense than on conventional tours, which sometimes shuffle participants around Israel so quickly that the visitors lose touch with what they are seeing.
Tal-Or Cohen had a unique goal of her own. The dynamic, idealistic tenth grader is the daughter of Rena Cohen and the niece of Jade Bar-Shalom z"l of Moshav Hila, near Israel's northwestern border with Lebanon. In the fall of 2002, the two sisters conceived the idea of a book drive that would provide Israeli pupils with English language books. Thanks to their efforts, over 40 tons of books were on the shelves of Israeli school libraries by 2005.
Then tragedy struck the family. Jade contracted a severe form of brain cancer and finally succumbed during the war last summer. Her family could not even hold a proper funeral because of the constant threat of rocket fire. For a year, the books project slowed to a standstill.
When she heard that her school was mobilizing for a trip to Israel, Cohen saw a chance to revitalize her aunt's brainchild, but with a new twist: The books would be delivered in person by American pupils to their Israeli counterparts, who are still living in the aftermath of the war. "The family on both sides of the ocean was shattered by Jade's death," she says. "I wanted to do something as a memorial, and approached the administration with the idea of a book drive. Joshua Rapps, the vice principal, was very helpful. We made contact with the Ulpanit of Kiryat Shmona, a religious high school in a town most ravaged by the Hizbullah."
It turned out that the school had benefited in the past from the project. Dina Buzaglo, the school's English co-coordinator, welcomed the group with open arms. Moreover, Revalyn Faba-Sack, another teacher, was already engaged in a project to turn a shelter in the town's most remote neighborhood into a much-needed learning center and had joined Books for Israel's cadre of new leaders.
Throughout the winter, the students of MJBHA looked forward to their upcoming trip. In a school that combines a rigorous study program with a variety of activities, nobody seemed to have time to bring books. Then, in the final days before the flight, piles of books suddenly materialized all over the school. The problem was how to get them overseas. In the past, books had been shipped at cheapest rates, taking months to arrive. "Our whole idea was to hand them over personally," Cohen explained, "so we asked for volunteers to take a second check-in bag, crammed with books. We soon had 30 kids each schlepping a'hessed suitcase.' Dennis Berman, a local philanthropist who sponsored the trip, helped us personally."
Meeting their Israeli peers at the Ulpanit school in Kiryat Shmona was a highpoint of the tour. "It was amazing," beamed one of the visiting students, Natan Haramati. "We brought all kinds of books. One girl saw us unloading several copies of Harry Potter and her face just lit up!"
Once the books were delivered, the visitors and Ulpanit girls met for two hours of activities. "We prepared huge wall paintings onto which we poured out our feelings about what Israel means to us. Others worked on art projects made entirely of garinim (sunflower and pumpkin seeds - a ubiquitous Israeli snack sold by weight in Israel but artificially packaged in the US). Before the bus whisked us away to the Gilboa, we sat in groups and traded questions about how we live and study. It was really eye-opening to see the kids who lived through situations we can't even imagine. We have a block when we see harsh news. We don't realize that pupils sort-of like us live here day-to-day," exulted Haramati.
For the Ulpanit girls, the visit was also an eye-opener. "The teachers think that the books are a gift from heaven. Up to now, we never wanted to read English - we hardly ever read Hebrew," said one girl, "but to see that these kids brought the books all the way from Americaâ€¦ they even told me which books they think I'd enjoy. All of a sudden I want to read more."
The meeting took place fittingly during the Tu Bishvat week: There is a Chinese proverb that says, "A book is like a garden carried in the pocket." Some of the Maryland teens opted to plant trees where Hizbullah rockets had scorched the hillsides. Those who chose book delivery planted gardens of another kind.
A book drive for Israel-lovers
The Books for Israel Project is a story of resourcefulness, ingenuity and love, and is interwoven with the story of Jade Bar-Shalom. In July, 2002, Bar-Shalom attended the prestigious Etai International Conference - a four-day event attracting English teachers from many countries - in Jerusalem, where her lecture on the plight of disabled learners was enthusiastically received. At the conference, she was grieved to hear that the Ministry of Education no longer had funds for school libraries of English books, despite studies proving that independent reading is a key factor in language acquisition.
Back home in Moshav Hila, she spoke to her sister Rena in the US. They envisioned a book drive run by volunteers across the US that would meet the needs of pupils all over Israel, not just of the school where Bar-Shalom taught. A tremendous amount of organizational work followed, and soon hundreds of congregations - both Jewish and Christian - were sending cartons of quality reading material to reception points in Israel.
In her work in Ma'alot schools, primarily with students with learning difficulties, Bar-Shalom worked with ethnically mixed populations and saw her book drive as benefiting all sectors, especially those most disadvantaged.
The book shipments that reached Kiryat Shmona schools fulfilled her dream: Many of the pupils are the offspring of the town's original immigrant population from Morocco, Hungary, Romania and India. Ethiopian newcomers who study at Hamatmid religious school and live in nearby at Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar are reading the books. They are being read by Russian-speaking youths and even the children of former South Lebanon Army soldiers who made new homes in Israel after the Hizbullah takeover of southern Lebanon. Prime customers for the books are pupils in the 'Science and Knowledge School' at Tel Hai College, a program for gifted children from the northeast of the country. The Jewish, Druse, Christian and Muslim teenagers often read English at a far higher level than their peers.
Anyone interested in donating books or helping advance the project, or would like books delivered to their school should see the website: www.booksforisrael.wikispaces.com, or contact the Israeli coordinator Myrna Silverberg at email@example.com.