STUDENT UNION: Teens from Israel come to Chicago to get to know high schoolers here studying Hebrew

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Of course, Idan Ben-Naphtali desired to trade balmy Israeli climes for the tail end of Chicago winter for a couple of weeks as part of the recent Niles North Hebrew curriculum exchange program.

Curiosity got the best of him.

The United States seemed appealing from movies, TV shows and on-line images, but Ben-Naphtali craved the three-dimensional version.

“I looked forward to this trip,” he said. “I wanted to see it for myself. When I travel abroad, and I told this to my host (Zachary Brown), I not only want to see the sights and points of interest…(but also) live the life of the locals. Go to the restaurants they like, go to the schools.”

Teen-agers like Ben-Naphtali returned the favor for Niles North students like Mollie Chez, who journeyed to Israel a year ago on the front end of the program, the only U.S.-Israeli student exchange arrangement for a public high school in Illinois.

“When we were in Israel, we spent a half day at their school,” said senior Chez. She laughed about the stark differences between an Israeli high school and its more buttoned-down, formal American counterpart: “They don’t always go to classes, and the classes they do are a lot louder and more interactive.” Whereas in Skokie, Chez would address Niles North Hebrew teacher as “Mrs. Raiber,” Ben-Naphtali might call her “Anna” back home.

Israeli and American exchange students during Hebrew class at Niles North.

It wasn’t quite culture shock for either side. More like expanding one’s horizons, physically and mentally, as teen-agers are more alike than not almost anywhere. And the students from both countries learned a political lesson, too. Just like their counterparts protesting gun violence, they have clout. They would not have had Israeli students bundling up to visit Skokie if not for the Niles North students, and in turn their parents and surrounding community, working successfully to preserve the school’s Hebrew program after the initial visit to Israel in 2017.

Enough people realized a foreign language program, administered properly, is not about rote memorization of language. The ability to communicate in multiple layers is supplemented by an understanding of a different culture.

So the Niles North end of the exchange program was a kind of small triumph for 2018 Judaism, in which people of different religiosity levels banded together rather than being pulled part, as is so common in so many instances in Jewish public and political life.

“I will credit my students,” said Raiber, a Moldavian native whose family of teachers emigrated in 1989 to Israel, where she was educated. “It was word of mouth. It takes time to create it, build it. How is the teacher? How is the program? They were big fans, Jewish and non-Jewish.  About 10 percent of our (Hebrew) students are non-Jewish. You can challenge yourself with a very different language.”

Raiber’s students in the threatened program were dedicated, to be sure. Some at Niles West attended a 7 a.m. class at Niles North’s campus, then were bused the three miles back to their home school for the rest of the day. But there weren’t enough of them, just 2/3 out of the 120 enrollment standard for a foreign language program.

“The community rallied, all kinds of people, and doubled the number of students in Hebrew I,” said Todd Bowen, director of world languages for District 219.

“It’s always exciting to see that happen.  It was a concerted effort by a number of students and others.”

At a Purim party, from left, host Elizabeth Goldberg-Flores with her Israeli guest Shani Kleban.

An indication the community would step up if lobbied the right way came when an anonymous donor contributed $20,000 to the Niles North trip to Israel. Cost per student was $3,000. The junketers in 2017 were  Chez, Daniella Shaykin, Alana Stein, Kayla Stein, Ezekiel Cordeiro, Julia Schneider, Alexandra General, Keren Salgado, Debra Salgado, Olivia Rausa, Ron Yitzhak, Madeline Matassarin, Lavi Topaz, Stephanie Brand and Robert Levin.

In turn, 15 Israeli students from ORT Kramim school in Karmiel, where Raiber grew up, visited Niles North and lived with host students. They noted the differences in, most starkly, weather and food.

School security, so much an issue in the wake of the Parkland mass shooting, has long been established in Israel with armed security guards. Niles North does not have hand-held metal detectors as with an Israeli school.  Only a small number of Israeli teachers have gun licenses in a strictly-regulated country, but are not encouraged to come packing to class compared to recent U.S. proposals all the way from the Oval Office.

Niles North’s guards not only control access to the school without airport-style security, but are more responsible than their Israeli counterparts for discipline in hallways and other non-classroom areas.

“The second we’re not in class, the police know and our parents know,” said Brown. “In Israel, if they don’t want to show up for class, they just come at noon. It surprised me. Here if you don’t come to class you are in trouble with the law. It’s personally so shocking to me how strict we are.”

Israeli students and teachers with their American hosts at the entrance to Niles North.

The Israeli visitors were not checking out the security as much as how their hosts’ school life seemed far more regimented than at home.

“The student population was three times bigger than what it is at our school,” said Ben-Naphtali. “And there are so many different classes everyone can take. You’ve got five languages you can take. A mechanics class where you can work on cars, which is crazy.

“We have none of these options in Israel, sadly. I really think the Israel education (ministry) should put more money into it. Schools here get the most out of every student and helps them find the right career in college. It gives them life skills, such as studying about the economy. I think the school system in Israel has got some things to learn from here.”

Chez hosted a mother-daughter duo: Dalit and Yam Benedik. Dalit Benedik had been a chaperone back in Israel. “They were a great match for me and my mom,” she said.

In the limited time Chez spent at an Israeli school, she recalled the higher decibel and interactivity — how “students talked with teachers, and (at Niles North) it’s teachers talking at us.

“It was very interesting to see their attitudes toward school and outside school. They really didn’t do homework. So that was one of our concerns when they came here – when are we going to have time to do homework. We spent a lot of time working how to problem-solve because we have homework. I don’t think they really saw how much homework we have. We tried to conceal that.  Knowing how their school day works helped us understand what we needed to do to make sure they had a good time.”

Shaykin, host to Or Ben-Shoshan, said her image of Israeli education last year was “a lot more fluid – it kind of reminds me more of how we do college in America. If we don’t go to class, detentions pile up. They’re not going to have very much fun when they come here. We prepared them — we go to school at 7 a.m., we don’t get out ‘till 3 p.m.”

One of the Chicago sites that Israeli students visited was the observation deck at Willis Tower. From left: Levi Zeffren (NCSY), Todd Bowen (Director of World Languages at District 219), Anna Raiber (Hebrew teacher at Niles North).

Israeli student Lital Sokhatchevski, hosted by Miriam Berkson, said students back home use smart phones as their base electronic learning tool.

“Here, they use computers,” she said. “Some of the students can bring computers to our school, but we are more on the smart phones because it is small and comfortable. Here, you can choose everything you want, what interests you.”

But Israeli students take to English language lessons relatively quickly. English and Arabic are the main non-Hebrew languages taught in their schools.

“No, it wasn’t hard (to learn English),” Sokhatchevski said. “After a little time, it was smooth. Here, I was really surprised, every place I went said I was speaking really good.”

Sokhatchevski had a lot of commonality with senior Berkson as she sharpened her English simply by speaking conversationally. The two teen-agers are both interested in medical careers.

“I got so lucky to host her,” said Berkson. “I talked to her a little bit before she came to America. When she came, she was so friendly, nice and funny. The hardest thing about being bi-lingual is being funny in another language, in English.”

Her guest became Berkson’s supplementary Hebrew teacher after Raiber. Berkson had previously taken Spanish, and had just started in Hebrew. “We tried to (talk conversationally),” she said. “Lital laughed at me a lot (trying to speak informal Hebrew). But her English was amazing.”

Berkson’s ability to drive enabled her to take Sokhatchevski beyond the immediate Niles North community. They repaired to Lou Malnati’s pizza emporium, a “must” to Berkson.  

“A lot of our free time was spent with my immediate family,” she said. “We went shopping our first and second days. The first time we walked into Walgreen’s, she was so amazed because we had so many options. She was flabbergasted.”

Said Chez about shopping with Yam Benedik: “Understandably, they want to get Nike and Under Armour. Those are big brands they can take home and show their friends.”  Sam’s Club and Target also were on their agenda.

Ben-Naphtali simply loved the taste of teen-agers’ favorite food and the sights of Chicago’s skyscrapers, along with the Daniel Burnham-inspired parkland.

“I was so enthusiastic to see the buildings and open spaces, because in Israel we don’t have it,” he said. “All of the things are so small. It was all so big and beautiful. I was so surprised. It was amazing.”

The climate was far more temperate than what Matan Pe’er, hosted by Ori Shoffet, expected: “I talked to Ori a lot about the snow and what we were going to do in it. In the end, we were so depressed there wasn’t snow.”

The 15 exchange students were secular Israelis. Berkson has grown up Reform. However, she noted how Jewish culture is embedded in the daily life of Israeli students. “They are very secular,” she said. “A lot don’t keep kosher. But Judaism is still a part of secular life.”

One of the youngest hosts was freshman Elizabeth Goldberg, just 14. Raiber reported Goldberg was initially nervous about welcoming Shani Kelban.

“Seeing her for the first time was a little awkward,” said Goldberg. “I thought it would be a nice experience because my mom said it would be fun. I tried it out and it turned out to be fun, but also a little stressful. I never had a week where I had to go somewhere every single day.  There was a lot going on. I had to focus on Shani. In the end, it was all fun.”

As with the 2017 trip to Israel, Raiber credited Levi Zeffren  of NCSY, a national Jewish youth organization, for assistance. Zeffren also runs the Israeli Club at Niles North. Also helping out was the Israel Education Resource Center in Northbrook.

So Raiber’s classes got a little boost from some Hebrew conversationally-speaking kids from many time zones distant. If there was any question about the future of Hebrew instruction at Niles North, it has been definitively answered. The school now ranks as one of 16 public institutions in nine states offering Hebrew. The students can learn it first-thing in the morning or at 10:45 a.m., before lunch.

But kids on both ends learned so much more.

“Language and culture are so closely intertwined,” said Bowen.

Bringing Jews together seemed to be the biggest takeaway from the Israeli students’ visit.

Brown did not make the Israel trip in 2017. But hosting Ben-Naphtali was “life changing for my whole family. We’re planning to go to Israel at some point. It’s important, it’s our culture being Jewish.  Having Idan in our house completely changed our point of view of Israeli culture and how life is there.

“I do and will enjoy this experience and it will make me see life in a different perspective, to see everybody from around the world having so many different ways of life. To really get on a one-on-one level with somebody who has a completely different life than we have in America is truly amazing.”

Berkson’s description of Sokhatchevsky summed it all up: “She’s like my sister now. I got so lucky. It was definitely the best host and hostee match I could have asked for.”

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