Even if a trip to Israel isn’t in the cards this year for many local teens, they can still visit vicariously.
In a new program from Enter: the Jewish Peoplehood Alliance, the concept of the international pen pal is being revived for the 21st century, with a decidedly Jewish twist.
Through the One2One initiative, Pittsburgh high schoolers can meet virtually with Israeli students to discuss common interests and forge friendships in a series of video-based encounters. Teens and their Israeli peers will talk about sports, history, art and music, or science and technology, interwoven with classic and modern Jewish texts to foster deeper discussions.
Enter: the Jewish Peoplehood Alliance is a new startup from the minds of accomplished Jewish philanthropists, like Birthright Israel co-founder Charles Bronfman. The organization aims to maintain a diverse, inclusive, interconnected global community through initiatives like One2One, which rely on local Jewish community organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, to recruit participants.
Pittsburgh’s Federation was eager to join Enter in facilitating this modern-day correspondence program in its inaugural year, said Kim Salzman, Federation’s director of Israel and Overseas Operations.
“We wanted to partner with Enter on this pilot year initiative because it’s a wonderful way to engage our teens with Israel, so that they can make a direct personal connection with Israeli peers. It’s a great opportunity that we didn’t want to miss out on,” Salzman said.
This program was specifically designed with students’ needs in mind. It requires only five 30-minute video sessions, beginning in February and taking place over three months. All sessions will occur in English, avoiding any language barrier for the U.S. participants and allowing the Israeli students to practice English. The meetings will take place on Sundays to ensure students will retain ample time for their classes and schoolwork during the week, and each participant will be able to choose the meeting dates most convenient for them.
Yet for such a minimal commitment, there’s a lot to gain. Partners will choose their topics of discussion from four different thematic tracks, designed by Dr. Noga Cohavi of Haifa, a leading content developer in the Israeli public education system. All pairs will be introduced to traditional Jewish values that foster a shared sense of Jewish peoplehood, including principles like arvut hadadit, mutual responsibility.
Students will discuss the differences between life as a high schooler in Israel versus the United States, and will ultimately design a final project together. After the five sessions, each participant will receive a certificate of completion and can choose to continue speaking with their partner outside of the scheduled meetings.
While Salzman notes that the most impactful way to connect with Israel is to visit the country in person, this program allows for connection in times when financial hardships or safety issues may prevent students from traveling — like during the pandemic. Many programs that normally permit high schoolers to experience Israel up-close have been suspended this past year.
“This initiative was in the works before the coronavirus, but now the whole world is using Zoom, so it makes sense for students to use video platforms to connect with others right now,” Salzman said. “This is a wonderful way to get many teens from the Pittsburgh community connected with Israel and to strengthen their connections to their Jewish identities.”
In order to attract Israeli students, Enter has been coordinating with the Israeli ministries of Education and Diaspora Affairs to enlist high schools for the program. So far, about a dozen Israeli high schools representing Haifa, Be’er Sheva, Ashkelon and Netanya, among other cities, have signed up to participate in One2One meetings. Israeli students are mostly juniors and seniors with high English proficiency.
For now, missing from the list are Karmiel and Misgav, Pittsburgh’s Partnership2Gether sister cities in Israel, but Salzman is optimistic they will be represented in the future.
“We’re hoping that they’ll partner with schools from Karmiel and Misgav next year and enhance the connections between Pittsburgh and Israel,” Salzman said. “This is truly only the beginning of what this program could become, and I am certain this is going to grow in the coming years. I think it’ll be really exciting for our teens to be able to say, ‘I was a part of this when it was in its pilot year.’”
Sign-ups for One2One close at the end of January and can be accessed on Pittsburgh’s Federation website. PJC
Dionna Dash can be reached at email@example.com.