March 28, 2007
by Gabe Ross
Roxanne Psaltis skipped her math class last Thursday. Instead, the Sherwood High School sophomore made some new friends.
"They just kind of came up to us, and we started talking to them," said Psaltis, who was sitting in the hallway during her lunch period at the Olney school when she and some friends struck up a conversation with some visiting Israelis, who then convinced her to forgo her class.
Prior to meeting the Israelis, Psaltis' only exposure to the Jewish state was from the media. "It's on the news because people are fighting over it, but that's about it," she said.
Six Israeli high school students from the Beit Shemesh-Yehuda Plains area were in town to change the perception of Israel as just a place of conflict. The teens, who came as part of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington's Beit Shemesh-Washington DC Partnership 2000 initiative, visited 14 area schools last week, meeting with students at both public and Jewish schools and sharing a little bit about their lives.
"This delegation is to get teenagers to see the real life of Israeli teenagers ... to see a real human side of Israel behind the headlines," said Ina Lerman, who directs the federation's Israel and overseas department.
Following a brief presentation, the Israelis took questions on topics ranging from life on a kibbutz to the geopolitical situation in the Middle East. During the lunch break, they mingled with roughly two dozen Sherwood students, comparing their different school schedules and receiving tips on good places to shop in the area.
"It seems kind of like America, not so different ‹ they just do similar things," concluded Psaltis afterward.
Lisa Vardi hosted the kids in her global issues class. "Definitely, the people-to-people exchange is wonderful," she said. "It's not just political dialogue, but also cultural. That's my goal as a teacher."
The Sherwood students seemed particularly enthralled with the idea of kibbutz life. Yuval Bashan of Kibbutz Tzora showed pictures and explained what it was like to grow up in a communal living environment.
"That's like the most fascinating," said Devon Williams, a senior. "I didn't think places like that were still around."
Still, political issues did surface. Janee Embry, a junior, asked the Israelis how they felt about seeing American soldiers in Iraq on their television screens.
"We don't have the right to tell you what to do," answered Bashan. "We don't have the right to come intervene."
"I had thought that maybe they were going to disagree with what we were doing," Embry said afterward.
Images of Israeli troops fighting, she added, would no longer be an abstraction for her. "It's sad, because that could be them on the TV," she said, realizing that Yuval would soon be enlisting in the army. "They're such good people."
Junior Sang Kim asked the Israelis how they felt about the Palestinians. "Everyone wants peace," said Naphtali Jaworowski of Beit Shemesh. "We don't have anything against them."
Kim said later that the class had seen a video that showed scenes of intense hostility between the two sides. "I thought they would really hate each other, but they're really open," she said after hearing Jaworowski's response.
Jaworowski, who made aliyah from Australia with his family five years ago, talked about what it was like to get used to a new language and school system. "No one really wants to give up their Sundays, do they?" he said, drawing laughter about living in a country where Sunday is a regular work and school day. "It's a toughie."
For the Israelis, the trip was an educational experience as well. Modi'in's Achinoam Varmam said American schools dwarfed her all-girls school.
"It really reminds me of the movies, the public schools," she said.