At left, an Israeli student who fled the war, inside a classroom at Epstein Hillel School.

From Israel to Jewish day schools

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From Israel to Jewish day schools

At left, an Israeli student who fled the war, inside a classroom at Epstein Hillel School.

In the middle of the night on Oct. 7, Rebecca, a grandmother who lives in Swampscott, got a call from her daughter in Israel.

“Something is very wrong,” her daughter said.

Rebecca, who requested her last name not be used for security concerns, was born, raised in and spent much of her life in Israel before moving to the United States 20 years ago. She has lived through war in her home country, and she recognized the signs of Oct. 7. What she saw – as confusing and chaotic as the news was at the time – reminded her of the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

“Send the kids here,” she told her daughter immediately. “Do anything in your power to send the kids here.”

The very next day, two of her grandchildren arrived at Logan airport, one 13, the other 17. Their brother, 20, is serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

The boys were scared and confused when they arrived, “talking constantly about the war,” said Rebecca. She didn’t know how to occupy them, or even how to help them feel some semblance of normalcy in a disturbing time. A teacher at Epstein Hillel School for 22 years, Rebecca reached out to Head of School Amy Gold. Just as Rebecca had responded to her daughter, Gold said without question, “Bring them to school.”

“So, I brought them to school,” Rebecca said, “And it was the best thing I did. They saved my [grand]kids.”

Epstein Hillel in Marblehead is currently hosting 11 Israeli students, kindergarten through eighth grade, from six families who have come to the U.S. to escape the trauma of the war between Israel and Hamas. And they are not alone – the phenomena of Israeli families and students coming to the U.S. in the wake of the war is taking place nationwide.

 

Israeli brothers at Epstein Hillel School in Marblehead.

Here in Massachusetts, Epstein Hillel, Maimonides School in Brookline, and Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton are among those that have taken students who have temporarily relocated to the U.S. from Israel since the war began. The students are mostly attending the schools free of charge, and are fully integrated into the classes. They come to school, go to class, and sit and play with American kids their own age.

Rebecca said that the other kids at the school have gone above and beyond to welcome the new students. “In each class I have a new student who just came,” she said. “The kids are so wonderful. They welcome them. They always say, ‘Come sit next to me’ – they are fighting to be with them … It warms my heart to see all the classes and all the teachers so welcoming.”

She said that her grandchildren were so distraught upon arrival that they were not sleeping at night. Going to school and having a routine changed that. “The school gave them some humanity, something that is a normal way of life,” she said. “I am so grateful. [Amy] called all the teachers, and everyone was preparing for them. The kids immediately just embraced them.”

For teachers, of course, the additional students provide challenges, but everyone seems to be up to the task. For the children who don’t have strong English language skills, Hebrew-speaking teachers, as well as other students, and technology resources like Google Translate are helping to support learning.

“We’re doing [our] best,” said Gold. “My teachers are super collaborative here, they’re doing their best to support each other. I’m really working hard to support them and give them extra resources where I can. It’s just part of what we do … It doesn’t feel like a burden.”

Many of the schools that have taken Israeli kids are working together to share resources and support in an unprecedented moment. Broader organizations, like Prizmah, a national network of Jewish day schools, are helping, too. Stronger Together, a network of the 14 Jewish day schools in Greater Boston, has been supporting a number of schools as they take on new students, like hiring a couple Hebrew-speaking therapists to offer support.

“[The children] are leaving Israel in such a difficult, painful time,” said Gold, “It just seemed like the best thing I could offer would be for them to be able to be part of our school, even just temporarily, to give them back a piece of their childhood.”

Maimonides students, including a new Israeli student, attend the March for Israel in Washington on Nov. 14.

At Maimonides School, a Modern Orthodox day school that serves preschool through high school students, the number of Israeli students has fluctuated over the last several weeks, ranging from six to nine across upper and lower school divisions. At the moment, they are hosting six Israeli children.

“We have been putting our energy and efforts and hearts and minds to creating all the infrastructure to provide them not only a powerful [experience], fully integrated into the fabric of our school, but also one that is sensitive to their specific and unique situation and potential needs,” said Rabbi Yaakov Green, head of school at Maimonides. In addition to providing learning and structure, Green said that the school community is also trying to model what it looks like to be a strong, Modern Orthodox Zionist. In that regard, 165 Maimonides students and chaperones traveled to the March for Israel in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14.

“The parents and extended family members … they have just been glowing with effusive gratitude,” said Green. “That’s not why we do it, but it’s a good reassurance that we are providing what we aim to provide, which is that love, that comfort, that family hug of what a school can be.”

At Solomon Schechter Day School, 36 Israeli students, ranging in age from toddlers through sixth grade, are integrating into the broader fabric of the community.

“Overall, our students and families have been incredibly welcoming to our new students, helping them to find housing, winter clothing, Shabbat and Thanksgiving meals, and more,” said Shira Strosberg, director of enrollment and advancement at Schechter. “We’ve also hired additional Hebrew-speaking staff to help our students. For most, the transition has been very smooth and it’s going to be very hard to say goodbye when they do return back to Israel.”

At Maimonides, the goodbyes have already begun – one family informed the school last week that they would be returning home in the following days, as the schools have finally started to open back up in Israel.

“It was hard to see them go,” Green said. “The excitement that we hear from the parents, of the smiles when [students] see the school on the drive every morning, the excitement and the smiles they have on the way out – it is an environment that has felt welcoming enough for the students to feel the enjoyment of coming to school.”

Amidst war, having a little peace baked into a normal routine is a blessing for anyone. For these students, it’s a respite from their normal lives, and the current stress and trauma that is present there. And there is hope that, by the time they return, they will find some peace back in Israel, too. Θ

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