Doing ‘good for others’ in Israel sparks appreciation at home
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Doing ‘good for others’ in Israel sparks appreciation at home

Classrooms Without Borders takes high school students on service mission to the Jewish state

Max McCarran of Shady Side Academy with four boys from his host family at the Children's Village. Photo courtesy of Kate Lukaszewicz
Max McCarran of Shady Side Academy with four boys from his host family at the Children's Village. Photo courtesy of Kate Lukaszewicz

Ten area teens returned from Israel with a greater appreciation for family, food and democracy.

The high school students, who attend Shady Side Academy, Sewickley Academy and Winchester Thurston, participated in a Classrooms Without Borders service mission to the Jewish state. Between March 18 and 30, the students spent six days at the Children’s Village in Karmiel assisting underprivileged Israeli youth and observing the dynamics within large adoptive families.

Sophia Shapira, 16, said she was taken aback by both the care provided and the selflessness exhibited within the village.

“When I went there and saw what these adults were doing for foster kids, it was amazing,” Shapira said.

More than 200 children, resettled from unsafe environments by the Israeli government, live in the village. Each child, ranging in age from 3 to 18, lives with a married couple and several other biologically unrelated children in a home as a family.

“It was just amazing to see,” Shapira said. “In the village, there was a synagogue, a school, a playground and a candy store. The village was giving these kids a chance to have a life.”

Emma Di Domenico, 15, described the welcomeness she felt from both the children and their parents.

“Even though I was a stranger, the family referred to me as part of their family and encouraged me to come back whenever I want,” she said.

Classrooms Without Borders founder and Executive Director Tsipy Gur said Shapira and Di Domenico’s reactions — as well as those of the other students — reflect the service mission’s purpose.

“Trips like this are helping kids get out of their bubble and do something good for others and for klal yisrael (the Jewish people),” Gur said.

Kate Lukaszewicz, a civics teacher at Sewickley Academy, chaperoned alongside Gur and described the experience as “student-centered.”

Although considerable portions of the visit were spent building relationships within the village, there were opportunities to learn about history and democracy, she said.

Rosh HaNikra grottoes. Photo by Milagros de Jong

Months before boarding a plane, the Pittsburghers studied Israeli culture, Jewish holidays and traditional foods with Bar Zeevi and Einav Mayer, two Shinshinim (young Israeli ambassadors).

During the Rodef Shalom Congregation-based sessions, the Israelis even taught the students a few Hebrew words for conversation abroad.

Milagros De Jong, 15, said that her nervousness about language barriers didn’t preclude meaningful and natural interactions with children in the village.

“Even though they spoke Hebrew and I spoke English, we played UNO and Jenga. These are universal things we can all understand,” she said.

In Tel Aviv, the students encountered protestors, who — like thousands of Israelis during the past four months — voiced opposition to the Israeli government’s proposed judicial overhaul.

Lukaszewicz said the demonstration was not only “civil and passionate” but educational.

“I thought it was a good model for students to see how citizens across the globe might use their voice for change,” she said.

Similarly instructive was the March 27 labor strike, Lukaszewicz said.

In response to government actions, members of the Histadrut umbrella group, which represents more than 700,000 workers in health, transit, banking and other sectors, went on strike.

The strike resulted in the closure of Masada, and although the students were unable to visit the historic site, learning about the attitudes and actions of Israelis was valuable, according to the educator.

“This was a moment for students to realize that other countries engage in general strikes, whereas in the U.S. it is more tied to a particular industry,” Lukaszewicz said. Additionally, the strikers are people who “feel so strongly about government policies in Israel that with conviction in their hearts they chose not to work in order to make a point.”

The situation in Israel presents countless teachable moments, Gur said: “These students are the future generation, and we need to inform them about the country.”

Arjun Kapur of Sewickley Academy with four boys from his host family in the Children’s Village in Karmiel. Photo courtesy of Kate Lukaszewicz

Max McCarran, 17, said he has wanted to visit Israel since learning about the country from a Sunday school teacher at Temple Ohav Shalom.

Thanks to Gur, and a presentation she made at Shady Side Academy about the service mission, he realized he finally had a chance to see the country and help others there.

Whether it was learning about Roman connections to the Rosh HaNikra grottoes and the area’s continued role within military conflicts, or viewing ancient water tunnels in Jerusalem, so much of the past was brought alive, the student said.

But there was one space that particularly altered McCarran’s understanding of history.

During a tour of the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, McCarran and the other teen travelers — five of the students were Jewish, five were not — discovered the story of Antek Zukerman and other resistance fighters who joined the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.

For McCarran, the Western Galilee-based museum was a welcome alternative to previous lessons about the Holocaust.

“In Sunday school, we focused on death and the horrible things the Nazis did. This showed the resistance,” he said.

Whether it was hearing tales of bravery at the Ghetto Fighters’ House or spending time with children in the village, McCarran said the trip made him “a lot more grateful for what I have.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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