The educational coordinator for one of the Partnership 2000 regions in our area stopped in today, to discuss possible projects. We spent a good deal of the time commiserating with each other on the difficulty of generating any kind of ongoing correspondence or cooperative projects between schools in Israel and those in Diaspora communities. We have tried everything: sending delegations of teachers in both directions, building interactive internet sites, developing plans for exchange of letters, gifts, videotapes, and computer displays. If we are lucky, we get as far as one exchange of letters. But often, we only get as far as half of an exchange, and even that is like pulling teeth. Why is it so difficult? I have been thinking about this question for several years now, as I find my own frustration shared by many others in the field. A few reflections, without a clear conclusion:
Perhaps the problem is methodological. That is, we all share the belief that "We are one," and that our goal as educators -- strengthening and enriching Jewish identity -- is served by creating interpersonal exchanges and relationships between our students and their counterparts from other Jewish communities and cultures. Our lack of success is just due to our not having found the right topics or the right medium or the right setting to motivate our students to pursue such exchanges and relationships. What we need to do is to find those strands in the curriculum that are naturally and integrally strengthened by such contact. Then, teachers and students on both sides would have an interest in keeping the communication going. Sooner or later, we'll find the appropriate points of contact -- and a medium that is both immediate and hassle-free, so that the communication won't break down over technical issues.
And/or, perhaps the problem is one of priorities: such programs of communication can only work if educators on both sides decide to invest significantly in them -- investment of time and other resources. We have enough trouble achieving success in the major, central areas of the curriculum; if the activity remains peripheral, just another extra project squeezed in between the major elements of the curriculum, then it shouldn't surprise us when nothing much happens.
Which brings us to a more difficult possibility: maybe the problem is inherent, fundamental: maybe we really don't have much in common to talk about, and each side has much higher curricular priorities than contact with the other for its own sake. While we may all agree that Jewish Peoplehood is an important value, that doesn't require every Jew to be ipso facto committed to exchanging pen pal letters with any other Jew. I can believe fervently in the unity of the Jewish People and even act on its behalf without feeling the need to communicate with members of that people who don't happen to be among the members of my own particular community. Perhaps it is artificial and forced to try to get arbitrary groups of young Jews to devote time and effort to corresponding with their far-off contemporaries who don't even speak the same language.
If we all celebrate the same holidays, pray the same prayers, eat the same symbolic foods, read the same Bible, are products of the same history, then we are one, and whenever we want to or need to, can move from one community to another and find a welcome and a familiar environment and a helping hand and a minyan. What creates the bond among us is not my personal commitment to other Jews wherever they are, but the commitment I share with them -- and with past and future generations -- to common values, beliefs, and practices. This would imply that the educational process is the reverse of what we may have been thinking: it is not the link to distant Jews that will serve to strengthen our students' personal Jewish identity, but rather, only by strengthening their Jewish knowledge, belief, and practice can we help them feel their natural connectedness to their fellow Jews in Israel and everywhere else.