Lindsay Ganci, 25, had always wanted to go to Israel, but never Lhad the opportunity.
Last summer, she joined other congregational schoolteachers on a Birthright trip that combined tourist hot spots with visits to Israeli schools and opportunities to network with Israeli teachers.
“There’s something about Israel where the values are alive. They’re being carried out and put on display and the whole country benefits from it,” said Ganci, who works at the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, L.I. “I feel like I have so many more tools now in my arsenal when I walk into a classroom.”
The trip, sponsored jointly by Birthright and the Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education (PELIE), a group that works to improve Hebrew schools and other part-time Jewish education, was one of two Israel tours tailored for young teachers. While Ganci’s trip was for those working in Jewish education, the other, called REALITY, was for public school teachers — not all of them Jewish.
REALITY, in its third year, is a joint effort of the Schusterman Family Foundation and Teach for America, with assistance from the Samberg Family Foundation. The annual program is for 60 to 80 Teach for America participants (during any point in their two-year experience) who are either Jewish or have worked closely with the Jewish community.
Adena Raub, PELIE’s information manager, came up with the idea for her group’s trip after noticing how a trip to Israel spurred a new “passion I brought to my work, and the context I had for everything I was teaching.”
The PELIE trip functions in some ways like any other Birthright trip; its participants cannot have been to Israel on an organized trip previously (although the maximum age has been raised from 26 to 29). While many Jewish educators would therefore be ineligible for PELIE, the trip was still full, with 28 American teachers who were accompanied by seven Israeli counterparts.
“This was absolutely my last chance” for Birthright, said 29-year-old Rachael Heger, a teacher at the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation. “I felt really, really fortunate to be able to have gone through it.”
REALITY, the trip for public schoolteachers, partnered with Teach First Israel, an Israeli version of Teach for America.
Participants of both trips spent time visiting educational institutions around Israel to see how teaching styles there differed from those in the United States. PELIE participants, for example, went to a “democratic” school where the students dictate the curricula. Those on the REALITY trip met students and teachers from several Jerusalem alternative schools, and met both Arab and Jewish Israelis.
They also visited the important sights of Israel, such as the Western Wall, which struck strong emotional chords with both REALITY and PELIE participants.
“There’s a power and a palpable sense of something happening,” said Grant Newman, 24, a REALITY participant, of Friday night services at the Kotel. His experience at the Wall reminded him that he was “part of something bigger than myself.” Previously, Newman had seen himself as a “traditional lost Jew,” who had grown apart from Judaism after his bar mitzvah.
“I found a really deep connection to the culture” on the trip, said Newman, who taught elementary school in Bushwick, Brooklyn. “Whether I am aware of it or not I will always be a part of the Jewish culture.”
In both programs, participants who came to gain skills for the classroom also found themselves reconsidering their Jewish identities and relationships with the Jewish state.
Rachel Brody, now 26, participated in the REALITY trip its inaugural year, in 2009. Brody had had a largely secular upbringing, with little connection to the Jewish community. However, she had always had a strong drive for social justice and education, and her trip to Israel made her realize that being active in the Jewish community went beyond religion.
“I made that connection with Judaism in a way that I really hadn’t before,” she said.
Brody has since been back to Israel, and has further explored social-action efforts through Jewish organizations and grants, such as PresenTense. After Teach For America, Brody had been working with charter schools in Washington, D.C., on inclusion programming, but missed teaching and now teaches fourth grade and manages special education teachers.
“It’s really remarkable to see the type of vision people have been creating for their students” after the trip, said Andrew Mandel, Teach For America’s vice president of interactive learning and engagement. “They think bigger and bolder.”
In both trips, the unity of purpose of the participants bonded them together.
“The strength of our relationship came from the fact that we were there with a similar goal,” said Ganci. “We created such a community of Jewish educators across the country.”
“It made my connection to Teach for America so much stronger,” said Amy Witt, 26, who participated on the first REALITY trip while teaching in the South Bronx, and has remained friends with the young adults she met there.
PELIE’s alumni have gone on to make Israel a central part of their respective curricula. Many have used photos and videos of their trips as primary sources, and at least one teacher has interviewed an Israeli counterpart in her classroom.
PELIE has an active Facebook page, as well as a private wiki PAGE where trip alumni share teaching tips and experiences. Raub is working to organize another trip for this summer, as well as to continue formal partnerships between past American and Israeli participants.
“We’re not alone in this movement, and the United States is not the only country with an education gap,” said Leora Sher, a REALITY participant who gained perspective on her work here by using Israel as a point of comparison, and to take some of the things she learned there into her into her public school classroom in Chicago. “There are people all around the world that are also trying to close the achievement gap… It humbles me but it also makes me realize that there are so many people fighting on your side.”
For further information about future PELIE trips, visit www.teachertrekisrael.com. Registration for this summer is in mid-February. To learn more about REALITY experiences, visit tfaisraelexperience.org.