They gathered on opposite sides of the world. In Philadelphia, it was Sunday morning. In Israel, it was late Sunday afternoon. They led vastly different lives — or so they thought. They existed in totally different cultures — or assumed that they did.
But in a remarkable videoconference from a conference room at the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City, not even a few techno-glitches could spoil the rare chance to come to know one another. In the end, two groups of teens quickly discovered common ground in what was a groundbreaking twinning program sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Center for Israel and Overseas and nurtured by Vered Robinzon, emissary of the Jewish Agency for Israel and Federation.
The local youngsters were students at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City, and the Israeli teens were from Philadelphia's Israeli sister city, Netivot, and attended the city's only public high school. Both sets of teens ranged in age from 14 to 16.
"This was a wonderful, exciting success," said Robinzon just after the inaugural videoconference that linked the two groups of teenagers. "The teens on both sides definitely connected and were respectful and patient when the sound portion of the conference had some problems in the beginning."
Echoing that gratification was Cindy Kushner, principal of the Neziner Hebrew School at BZBI. "We hope that through studying a common curriculum, both groups will meet through technology, and share meaningful exchanges," said Kushner, who was also delighted with the spirit and enthusiasm on both sides.
Last summer when she was in Israel, a mutual friend introduced Kushner to Noa Cohen-Orloff of Netivot. The two women hit it off immediately, and began thinking about ways through which they might create additional connections between Philadelphia and Netivot in the spirit of Partnership 2000, Federation's relationship with sister community Netivot/Sedot Ne-gev through which Federation invests in the region while promoting solidarity with Israel and the partnership region.
The notion of linking youngsters came up and when Kushner returned from the trip she contacted Federation to explore the idea further. Robinzon joined the brainstorming. Jeri Zimmerman, director of Federation's Center for Israel and Overseas, also saw a potential program as a win-win that would help the center work toward its goal of investing in strategic community initiatives that support and promote Israel engagement through social, cultural and educational programs.
And thus was an inspired idea born.
"We are all thrilled by this concept that enhances Partnership 2000," said Zimmerman. "We are also delighted to have such enthusiastic youngsters and adults involved. This is a wonderful link."
Organizers of the first videoconference wisely chose music as the subject, rap music specifically. And when the audio failed to work at the start of the event, the youngsters spontaneously began to sing the theme song from "SpongeBob SquarePants," something to which they could all relate. It may not have been rap, but it worked well as an ice-breaker, noted Kushner and Robinzon.
The teens also resorted to hand-printed signs to get past the audio glitch, and again, it added a certain merriment to the proceedings.
Rap music ultimately did get into the conversation, with emphasis on the wildly popular Israeli hip-hop rappers known as Hadag Nachash. The group's name literally means "The Snake Fish" but has taken on a playful alternative meaning in Israel where new drivers often place a tag on their back window with the words "Nahag Chadash," or "new driver."
For their part, the Philadelphia teens actually created a rap based on popular advertising slogans, which will be explored further in a future videoconference.
The videoconference will be the first of several, as teens from both countries discuss issues, ideas and one another's lives. "Our vision is that through these sessions, our students will see that although our cultures may be different, we are all very much the same," said Kushner.
"What was so wonderful was how easily the kids could connect," said Robinzon. "They seemed like a perfect match and I know the Israeli kids loved it as much as the American kids."
Indeed they did, according to Yoni Roytfeld and Or Oziel of Netivot. Said Oziel, "I would love to get to know them better, and I am hoping to get many new friends from this project. I was so glad to meet the American kids."
"It's fun and interesting to meet teenagers like me from the other side of the world," agreed Roytfeld. "I would like to know them and to continue with this project."
On this side of the world, the teens from BZBI were just as enthused.
Aliza Kahn, 15, a student at Central High School, had been in Israel this summer on a BBYO trip. She met Israeli teens, and began to see that they were not so different from American teens. The videoconference reinforced that notion.
"It was so much fun, and amazing to see how alike we really are," said Kahn. "Singing the SpongeBob song was so much fun, and such a link."
Yonaton (Yony) Laurence, 15, whose mom is Israeli, is no stranger to the country. But he, too, felt that the recent videoconference was terrific. "I feel my connection to Israel deeply, but this is a chance to get to know some kids my own age, and to understand them better."
The twinning project spawned a video being developed by well-known local bandleader and musician Sally Mitlas, who is now also immersed in videography. Mitlas is creating "A Day In the Life" as a living documentary of both sides of the twinning project.
"We're all very excited about the potential of this project, and about the energy on both sides," said Kushner.
For Robinzon, there is also the promise of a new way to link sister cities and their teen citizens. "I am very happy to see that this can happen, and that it is so exciting and meaningful to all of us. We are very encouraged that this is the beginning of something special."
This program has inspired a similar partnership between Saligman Middle School at Perelman 8th-graders and their Israeli counterparts at the Da'at School of Kibbutz Sa'ad. The partnership is focusing on heroism, which will be studied at both schools, and the students have planned a videoconference to discuss heroism in depth. The learning sessions will move from "virtual" to "real" when the American students visit the Da'at School this April on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
For more information, call Vered Robinzon at 215-832-0862.