newsSchools & Higher Education

California students, Israeli peers share a moment for Jewish peoplehood

San Diego Jewish Academy hosted a delegation of 130 students from a region that was decimated by the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks, giving them a weeklong reprieve from the war.

San Diego Jewish Academy hosted a delegation of 130 students from Israel’s Sha’ar HaNegev region for a reprieve and peer-to-peer interaction from Feb. 27 to March 2024. Photo by Paden Flaster.
San Diego Jewish Academy hosted a delegation of 130 students from Israel’s Sha’ar HaNegev region for a reprieve and peer-to-peer interaction from Feb. 27 to March 2024. Photo by Paden Flaster.

The poignant juncture in the relationship between the Israeli and American people was on full display on March 6 at the campus of San Diego Jewish Academy (SDJA), as about 75 of 130 visiting students from Israel’s Sha’ar HaNegev region boarded buses to begin their journey back home after a weeklong visit.

The delegation of 11th- and 12th-graders—together with therapists, counselors and faculty members from a region decimated by the Hamas terrorist attacks on Oct. 7—came to San Diego for a reprieve from the current war zone in Israel. According to SDJA, it was the largest delegation of Israeli students to visit the United States since the start of “Operation Swords of Iron.”

SDJA families hosted students during their visit. The American and Israeli students alike were palpably emotional on Wednesday upon reflecting on the experience.

“It was the most amazing experience to meet new people,” said Mia Kraus, a student from Kibbutz Kfar Aza in southern Israel near the border with Gaza. “What the families gave us is just incredible. It took us away from the tragedy and pain of the past few months.”

On Oct. 7, terrorists invaded Kraus’s home and remained there for 22 hours.

“Coming here and seeing all the love and connection with the students from San Diego Jewish Academy, we’ve made friends for life and families who we’ll be in touch with for life,” she said. “For those of us who’ve been evacuated from our homes after the attacks, we now know there’s always a place for us to come back home. I’m so thankful for this community.”

Sophia Williams, head of SJDA’s student government, hosted two of the visiting 11th-graders from Israel.

San Diego Jewish Academy
San Diego Jewish Academy hosted a delegation of 130 students from Israel’s Sha’ar HaNegev region for a reprieve and peer-to-peer interaction from Feb. 27 to March 2024. Photo by Paden Flaster.

“The most important thing for us was to make sure they could feel safe while they were here,” Williams said. “We just wanted to give them a fun week without having to worry about what was going on at home. I feel like we got so lucky because I don’t think we would’ve otherwise made friendships this strong or connections this strong with any of these kids.”

‘They gave us back so much’

The visit kicked off with an opening ceremony on Feb. 27. During their stay, the Israeli students experienced on-campus learning with their peers, Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night, social events, and excursions and volunteer opportunities around San Diego.

Shani Abed, director of school relations at SDJA, noted “the joy and the connection that these kids made with students and their families.”

“Many parents in our community didn’t want to let them go,” she told JNS. “As much as we gave them, they gave us back so much.”

San Diego Jewish Academy
San Diego Jewish Academy hosted a delegation of 130 students from Israel’s Sha’ar HaNegev region for a reprieve and peer-to-peer interaction from Feb. 27 to March 2024. Photo by Paden Flaster.

The Sha’ar HaNegev region and San Diego’s Jewish community have had close ties for more than 25 years. Then, several days after the Oct. 7 attacks, the city of San Diego and Sha’ar HaNegev formalized a sister-city relationship. After Ofir Libstein, the mayor of Sha’ar HaNegev, was killed by Hamas terrorists while he defended Kibbutz Kfar Aza, San Diego’s Mayor Todd Gloria said he was “personally mourning” the loss—that Mayor Libstein was a friend.”

“The news of his death is absolutely heartbreaking,” Gloria said. “I offer San Diego’s deepest condolences to his family and the people of the community he loved so much and served so well.”

Authentic and personal interactions between San Diego students and their Israeli peers can hopefully “provide just a little sense of healing for the students from Sha’ar HaNegev,” said Zvi Weiss, head of school at SDJA.

San Diego Jewish Academy
San Diego Jewish Academy hosted a delegation of 130 students from Israel’s Sha’ar HaNegev region for a reprieve and peer-to-peer interaction from Feb. 27 to March 2024. Photo by Paden Flaster.

“At the same time, this is a unique opportunity for our students to live out some of our values by showing support for their peers and strengthening Jewish peoplehood,” Weiss said. “Every year, our graduating students visit the Sha’ar HaNegev region during their class trip to Israel. But this is the first time we get to reciprocate the hospitality we always experience by welcoming such a significant delegation to SDJA.”

Abed similarly emphasized that the visit was “a wonderful and important opportunity to build connections and lasting friendships between young people in our communities. We are a global Jewish people, and we can all gain strength from each other during these difficult times.” 

The students’ travel was sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Education, while the Jewish Federation of San Diego sponsored the costs associated with the students’ stay in the Southern California city.

‘Rooted in the strength of community’

Weiss explained that cultivating students’ Jewish identities, as well as their meaningful, personal connections with Israel, is a key component of the experience at his school.

San Diego Jewish Academy
San Diego Jewish Academy hosted a delegation of 130 students from Israel’s Sha’ar HaNegev region for a reprieve and peer-to-peer interaction from Feb. 27 to March 2024. Photo by Paden Flaster.

“At SDJA, we strive to empower each student to learn for life, guided by Jewish values and rooted in the strength of community,” he said. “This visit ties into every part of our mission and is more important now than ever before.”

Williams, the student government president, couldn’t hold back tears as she bid farewell on Wednesday to the 11th-graders from Israel.

“It’s hard to hear how scared they are to go home,” she told JNS. “That’s all I heard this morning—how here, they didn’t feel there was a war at home, and that leaving San Diego was really hard. And there’s nothing we can do about it.”

And yet, despite the emotions associated with the Israeli students’ departure, she kept their visit in perspective and expressed appreciation for the long-term impact of the experience.

“We have such a strong Jewish community here, and we just expanded it by hundreds,” Williams said. “The fact that we’ll keep in contact with these kids from thousands of miles away is so special, and the school did such a great job including them and including us in all these activities this week.”

San Diego Jewish Academy
San Diego Jewish Academy hosted a delegation of 130 students from Israel’s Sha’ar HaNegev region for a reprieve and peer-to-peer interaction from Feb. 27 to March 2024. Photo by Paden Flaster.
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