A multicultural group of 32 students from the graduating classes of two US Hebrew-language schools is currently touring Israel, for many marking a first-time experience of the country they have been learning about for years.
The eighth-grade students come from Hebrew Language Academy in Brooklyn, New York, and Hatikvah International Academy in East Brunswick, New Jersey.
“Some of them have been learning about Israel since kindergarten, so this is an opportunity to bring to life what they have been learning for so long,” Tim Heckler, a teacher at the Hatikvah school, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday as the group stopped for lunch at Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market, two days into their 10-day trip.
While it’s common for Jewish students to study Hebrew and Zionism and Israeli culture at school, many of the Hebrew Public schools have a large majority of non-Jewish students from African-American, Hispanic and Asian communities.
Hebrew Public administers four state-funded Hebrew-English schools in New York, and it’s also affiliated with six schools across the US that follow the same concept, serving their local populations. In contrast to Jewish day schools, there are no tuition fees or special requirements.
With the exception of English-language arts, Hebrew is woven into all subjects through a team-teaching model with a Hebrew teacher alongside a general education or “specials” teacher.
The school system was founded in 2009 by several Jewish philanthropists, including Michael Steinhardt of Birthright, with the vision that thousands of Americans would grow up speaking Hebrew and understanding Israeli geography and culture.
Their tour of Israel certainly strives to promote the latter, with an action-packed schedule that takes the students all over the country.
By lunchtime on the second day of the trip, the group had already visited Machon Ayalon in Rehovot, explored Jaffa, visited Independence Hall in Tel Aviv and the Taglit-Birthright Innovation Center at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.
Alexia Newell’s favorite activity so far was visiting Machon Ayalon, a secret ammunition factory set up by the Jewish underground.
“Wow, these people did this so they could help their country; that’s pretty cool,” Newell said.
Newell comes from a Christian family and said her parents thought that visiting Israel was a good opportunity to visit holy sites mentioned in the New Testament. She also thinks the trip, which is her second visit to Israel, will provide her with a deeper understanding of Israeli culture.
After she graduates from Hatikvah, she is keen to maintain her Hebrew. Her friends think it’s odd that, as a non-Jew, she speaks Hebrew, but she tells them “you don’t have to be Jewish to speak Hebrew.”
“The school offered something that none of the other schools did, so my mom thought it would be a good opportunity,” she explained.
Zachary Kraft was struck by the diversity and modernity of Israel. “I expected to see a lot of roadside stalls and I thought there would just be lots of [religious] Jews,” he said.
Kraft comes from a Jewish family, but it’s his first time in Israel. His late great-grandfather had visited Israel and wanted the rest of the family to see it, too, and Kraft said that his parents may follow in his footsteps.
Kraft was impressed by the Innovation Center.
“It was cool to see how much of the technology we use today is from Israel,” he enthused.
He is less keen on the country’s language.
“Israel is small, so it’s a barely used language,” he said, adding that his own command of Hebrew is “very bad.”
Amanda Quinones Rodrigues, on the other hand, who has Puerto Rican heritage, is determined to continue her Hebrew studies after she graduates from the Hebrew Language Academy.
Her family doesn’t practice any religion, but her mother discovered several months ago, through a DNA test, that she has Jewish heritage.
“Now my mother also wants to learn Hebrew, so we will speak it together,” she said.
The recent discovery of her mother’s background made the trip even more appealing to Quinones Rodrigues, providing her with an opportunity to learn about a culture that has a connection to.
“I just want to learn more about Israel and have the full experience,” she said.
Ariel Mulkin, 13, is a veteran visitor to Israel, having visited relatives in the country several times.
“Now I’m with friends and exploring the country more,” he said. “I like seeing how they react to Israel, like I have previously, and that they get to experience it as well.”