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International Education: On Location in Israel
American Israel Friendship League Fosters Global Understanding

By Vicki Cobb

AIFLIf the ability to work globally is an essential 21st century skill, we must give educators as well as young people international experiences. This is exactly what the America-Israel Friendship League (AIFL) has been doing in its Young Ambassador Student Exchange (YASE) program for more than thirty years. Israeli and U.S. high-school students, of all religions and ethnicities from both countries, visit each other’s homes and home countries. Instead of telling students in classrooms about struggles for peace, democracy, survival, and prosperity, the young ambassadors see it all for themselves. The different perspectives on the challenges facing both countries are an extraordinary learning experience for both Israeli and U.S. students.

The ongoing success of the YASE program is due, in large part, to the vision and determination of former NYC math teacher, NYS Regent and present-day McGraw-Hill Sr. Vice President Dr. Charlotte Frank, who serves on the AIFL board. “Most people think of Israel as a place of conflict and danger from bombs,” she says. “They need to go there and experience it. Israel has some remarkable achievements against almost impossible odds that can only be truly appreciated on a personal level.” In order to promote a deeper understanding of American-Israeli education, Dr. Frank arranges a tour every year for delegations of U.S. school superintendents or school board presidents. According to Dr. Frank, “Leaders of American education also need to see Israel and this program for themselves. Then they can return to their districts and tell others the lessons they’ve learned.”

This year’s delegation included superintendents and educators from Arkansas, Michigan, Montana, Massachusetts, and Nevada. In addition to touring the sites of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, they visited schools, universities, and municipal centers and met with Israeli professors, journalists and educators. One of the primary items on their agenda at home is bullying. Israel’s struggle for existence among hostile neighbors was not lost on them. After a visit to the holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, Darrell Rud, Executive Director of School Administrators of Montana, reflected on an incident that occurred about twenty years ago in Billings, Montana. There had been a series of hate crimes that culminated with a stone being thrown through the window of the bedroom of the five-year-old son of a Jewish doctor. “I was principal then and this boy attended kindergarten at my school and I felt personal about it. We helped make the [school’s] parents aware of what had happened. It was a very close-knit school community and they were enraged because these were their next-door neighbors, these were their friends. The local newspaper published [pictures of] menorahs and everybody put them in their windows and suddenly the town made a stand that said, ‘This can happen somewhere else but it doesn’t happen in our town.’ And the stand that the community took against this violence seemed to cause it to move elsewhere because we had very few other events in a city of 100,000 after the local newspaper did what it did.”

At the end of their trip, the superintendents met with the U.S. students in the YASE program and shared some of what they had learned. The students were most impressed with the fact that the Israeli students went directly from high school into the army.  A student from Arizona commented “In looking at colleges, I think I want to go to this school because they have great parties or a nice dorm. I’m a junior and going to be making a college decision soon and because I’ve met the Israelis, I’ll be making my decision about college in a much more serious way. Israelis are much more serious about their futures because of the army coming when it does.”

Kay Johnson, Superintendent of the Greenwood School District in Arkansas observed, “Seeing young people coming out of high school, eighteen, nineteen years old in army uniforms and being ready to serve their country is impressive. We need something like that. And even though I’ve read about it, seeing them in person brings about a whole new reality.” When the group was asked if the United States should have some kind of compulsory national service after high school, more than half of the students raised their hands.

But the lesson rediscovered by both students and education leaders was the common humanity of all people no matter how different from themselves. One YASE student observed, “The old city is impressive because people get along even though there are separate sections. People move from one quarter to the other and they are making things work. We’re all humans, wherever we are.” Another student noted that when the rain poured and his group ran for shelter, a group of Arab kids did the same. “They are just like us!” he said, still marveling at the discovery. Superintendent Kimberly Hart, from Whitmore Lake Public Schools in Michigan said, “I enjoyed seeing all the children in schools. They were thrilled that we were taking pictures and they wanted to be in the pictures. It reinforced for me how much all children are alike and that children are children no matter what country we’re in.”

And there was much, in Israel, to be admired. Benny Gooden, Superintendent of Schools in the Fort Smith Public Schools in Arkansas and president-elect of the American Association of School Administrators said, “I was most impressed with the [Bialik-Rogozin] school in Tel Aviv that takes all the students from all over the world regardless of their family status, their political status, national status or their needs—a very diverse school—one I can relate to in an American city. I heard their formula for success from the Academy Award-winning principal Karen Tal—you set high goals, you have a clear vision and you accept no excuses.” Jimmy Cunningham, Superintendent of Hampton Public Schools in Arkansas, said, “I found it disturbing yet comforting to know the plight of the immigrant students and their parents and yet be able to find a country that would embrace their status and find freedom from persecution. We could all learn from these experiences.” Rob Slaby, Superintendent of the Storey County School District in Virginia City, Nevada observed, “There is a family atmosphere in Israel although they are so multicultural. They exchanged a thousand [Palestinian] prisoners for just one [Israeli] soldier. Why did they do it? Because they are a family and that’s what impressed me.” And Superintendent Margaret Frieswyk from Avon, Massachusetts summed up her experience, “I read somewhere that the Masada is a symbol of courage against a fierce enemy. Not that we in education have fierce enemies but there are obstacles and things that work against us. And the Masada for me represented incredible courage and fortitude and a dynamic that only a group can accomplish. It happened hundreds of years ago and here we are still trying to accomplish that kind of community where we can address the issues that face us.”#



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