Melissa is an alumna of Wexner Heritage Chicago 1 and a Los Angeles Endeavor member.  She can be reached at

As part of the Los Angeles-Tel Aviv Partnership, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, my children’s school, the Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am, has a 6th grade exchange program with the Magen School in Maoz Aviv.  The Pressman-Magen exchange has flourished for 13 years, under the leadership and commitment of both schools’ dedicated professionals, as well as Federation support.  Fifteen Israeli 6th graders, accompanied by a handful of parents and teachers, visited Pressman in December 2010, and 27 Pressman students, accompanied by 19 parents and 4 faculty visited Magen for ten days in May.  The children stayed in host homes, with parents and faculty in a nearby hotel.  My son, Josh, and I  were  part of the delegation, which afforded me the opportunity to watch Josh experience his own Israel.

We are fortunate, in that this trip was not Josh’s first visit to Israel.  However, traveling with his classmates and making connections with similarly aged Israeli children afforded him a unique and extraordinary experience.  He and his classmates, as every Israeli 6th grader does, recreated the destruction of the Allenby Bridge by the Palmach in the War of Independence, crawling through fields on a starlit night.  They attended a moving Erev Yom Ha’zikaron ceremony in Maoz Aviv, led by the Magen School’s 5th graders, which included the recitation of the names of Magen graduates who were fallen soldiers.  They celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut with Israeli families at parks and beaches with abundant barbecues, games with oversized blow-up mallets emblazoned with the Israeli flag and spraying a shaving cream-like substance on each other.   They walked, unaccompanied by parents, babysitters or housekeepers, the Israeli neighborhood between their host homes, the school and after-school activities, like the Scouts, a brand new experience for most of the Los Angeles students.

The program successfully presents Israel to 12 year olds in ways they can absorb – by making connections with kids and families who share their history and their narrative.  The trip is not designed as an overview of Israel, a Federation Mission, or a Birthright program.  The itinerary does not cover many significant sites in Israel and goes out of its way not to confront any contemporary political issues.   The exchange even avoids religious controversies by taking the Los Angeles students and parents to Jerusalem for the only Shabbat of the trip, without the host Israelis who are a secular community.  We led our own Kabbalat Shabbat service within view of the Kotel, attended one of several shuls on Saturday morning and enjoyed a pleasant and restful Shabbat.  The challenge in future years should be to find a way to draw the Israeli hosts into our non-Orthodox, yet traditional, Shabbat observance.

For all its simplicity, the program sparks a connection between our children and the Jewish state and its people.  The Magen-Pressman exchange created friendships for our children and connections that will only grow and deepen as Josh and his classmates mature, and have future opportunities to visit or study in Israel.  And I was lucky to be along for the ride!