U.S., Israeli youths share books, culture - Catholic Courier

U.S., Israeli youths share books, culture

ROCHESTER — As 11-year-old Taelor Powers of Nazareth Hall Middle School opened her letter from Israel, she was excited about the fizzing candy it contained, but even more excited about the photograph inside.

During the past semester, Taelor has been corresponding with Israeli student Mar Saylan, who attends Ironi Bet School in Modi’in, Israel.

“I asked her what she likes to do for fun, and she told me she likes to read,” Taelor said.

Taelor and Mar have formed a relationship as a result of their schools’ participation in the International Book-Sharing Project. Through the program, American and Israeli students exchange letters and then read the same book about the Holocaust and share their opinions of it. Students at Nazareth Hall and Ironi Bet School have read The Island on Bird Street by Israeli author Uri Orlev.

At the beginning of the project, letters were handwritten and delivered in person by Isobel Goldman, director of community relations at the Jewish Community Federation of Greater Rochester. Students also can log on to a secure Web site and read messages from their Israeli friends.

“I think it’s very interesting because we get to hear about other people who live on a different side of the world,” said Taelor, who said she told Mar how she loves to dance, sing and play basketball.

Learning about the Holocaust is new for most of the Nazareth Hall students, said Assistant Principal Vicki Bellis-Brouck.

“At this age, they don’t really know it,” she said, noting that students are taught age-appropriate lessons about what occurred during the Holocaust.

The International Book-Sharing Project was started in 1995 by Holocaust educator Karen Shawn, who was then assistant principal of Moriah School in Englewood, N.J. During a diocesan-sponsored visit to Israel and the Ghetto Fighter’s Museum there, Pat Connelly, a theology teacher at Rochester’s Aquinas Institute, learned about the project and immediately volunteered Aquinas to take part. Eight years ago, the school formed a partnership with the Reali School in Haifa and the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem, and participating students read either Night by Elie Wiesel or Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal.

To participate in the program, schools must pay an annual $1,500 fee, which includes materials, a visit from one of the program’s staff members and access to the Web site. Nazareth Hall’s fee was paid for with a $1,500 grant from the Brennan-Goldman Institute, which was established in June 2006 with a $100,000 gift to promote existing Catholic-Jewish dialogue. The institute, named in honor of Goldman and diocesan priest Father Joseph Brennan, is located at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford.

After receiving the grant, Nazareth Hall drew on Connelly’s expertise to get the program up and running, school officials said. During the project, the partnered schools often bridge their religious differences, Connelly said, noting that one section of the program’s Web site allows students to talk about their respective faiths and traditions.

“It’s amazing the percent of kids who get involved in the interfaith dialogue,” he said.

Goldman recently helped to further that dialogue by visiting Nazareth Hall students to compare and contrast Christianity and Judaism as well as point out the similarities and differences between Rochester and Modi’in. She said Modi’in is a very modern city with all the conveniences that Americans have.

“The city is filled with parks, and the kids are outside all the time, and they watch TV and listen to some of the same music,” Goldman said.

A student asked if most Jewish homes in Modi’in had two sinks, with one for dairy and one for meat. There is a full range of Kosher cooking observances, Goldman said, but most observant Jews would have two sinks.

Another student asked if the Israeli students have to wear uniforms.

“They can pretty much wear what they want to,” Goldman said.

Another asked whether Modi’in has malls.

“When I first went to the city, they said, ‘The only thing we don’t have is a mall,’” Goldman said. “But guess what? Now they do.”

Goldman said that Moshe Safdie, the renowned Israeli architect who is designing the Renaissance Square project for Rochester, also designed the City of Modi’in during a project stretching from 1992 to 2002. Plans for the city call for it to be the home of 250,000 people.

One key difference between the Israeli and American students, Goldman said, is that every Israeli student is required to join the military.

Several students wondered about violence and terrorism in Israel. Goldman said that although there are few problems with terrorism in Israeli suburbs such as Modi’in, many families in the country have been touched by terrorism and other acts of violence. Bellis-Brouck said several Nazareth Hall students have been touched by violence as well.

Connelly said he has seen a change in students’ perceptions of Israel as a result of their participation in the program. Another outcome is the formation of several lasting friendships, he said. One college senior recently told him she had just mailed her pen pal a wedding present — six years after they corresponded in class. The two had continued their friendship out of the classroom, even though they were separated by an ocean, he said.

“That’s a rarity, but in some cases, (participation in the program is) really life-changing,” Connelly said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For details on the book-sharing project, visit http://korczakschool.org.

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