Exchange Program Helps Teens Learn From Each Other
Over 5,000 students, teachers, and host families from over 60 cities have participated in The Youth Ambassador Student Exchange, with annual visits that are repeatedly described as “life-changing.” Conducted by the American-Israel Friendship League, the program includes students from diverse religions, races, ethnicities and backgrounds, and is designed to develop friendship, leadership and identity as well as support for Israel in the United States and understanding of the United States among Israelis, with “ripple” effects in respective schools and communities.
A protocol signed in 1977 between U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph A. Califano and Israeli Minister of Education Zevulun Hammer established this unique student-exchange program between their two countries that is still going strong.
By experiencing the everyday life of peers and their families, attending school, and meeting average citizens, it is hoped that the students’ eyes will be opened to reveal the common humanity and shared values of each side.
The 2011 cohort of 67 11th- and 12th-grade American and Israeli Youth Ambassadors divided up to visit Boston, Tucson, Oklahoma City or Virginia Beach and then came together for stays in Washington, D.C. and New York City, followed by two weeks for all in Israel. The students stayed with host families and attended school with their ambassador peers, all while learning about their new communities.
Elaine Goldberg, a volunteer chaperone and former New York City deputy superintendent, principal, and CEO, captured local New York flavor by taking the teens by subway to some of the city’s diverse neighborhoods, the “Imagine” circle in Central Park’s Strawberry Fields, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, FAO Schwartz, the 9/11 Memorial, and Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street protests in September and October.
Ten students from New York City who attend Lehman (Bronx), New Utrecht (Brooklyn) and Curtis (Staten Island) public high schools were in the group. As in previous years, the young ambassadors included Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists.
It takes courage to travel to a new country, live with a strange family, be willing to share feelings and ideas, and “stand up and be proud of who you are,” Goldberg said.
Speaking during the exchange, Thomas from Brooklyn was enthusiastic about his new Israeli friends. “You guys are normal. I didn’t think you’d want to get to know us. I can’t wait to visit your homes, see your culture, your daily lives.” Victoria from Tucson said, “You can’t tell who is American and who is Israeli anymore. I think we all appreciate our own culture more now that we see it in a new light.” Israeli impressions were similar. Amir exclaimed, “I met incredible people. Each and every one of you is an entire world,” he said. And Noa, “I was afraid of this journey, afraid I would not connect. I now understand wherever you are in the world, teens are the same.”
Yafit Lev-Aretz, an Israeli alum from the 1998 program, credited YASE for giving her the confidence to go to law school and then continue in her current pursuit of a Ph.D. She explained she comes from Ashkelon, a poor Israeli city where education is not valued. At YASE she learned that “information and knowledge are power” and education is key.
“It literally changed my life,” she said, exclaiming, “I am you thirteen years ago.” She advised the young people to believe in their abilities and not to credit successes to luck.#