Bruchim Haba’im

Welcoming Israeli students in time of need

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Students at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School demonstrate solidarity with Israel after the events of October 7 (Credit: Lynn Persin, Lynn Renee Photography)

Hospitality, known as hakhnasat orchim in Hebrew, is considered an essential Jewish value and Chicagoland Jews are now demonstrating this very principle. 

The atrocities committed on October 7 left Israeli families in limbo. No one knows how long the war will drag on or what life will look like in the aftermath. Many Israelis have been evacuated from their homes and communities. Schools in Israel are either not operating or conducting classes partially or fully virtually due to limited space in bomb shelters and safe rooms. Families have had to make tough choices for their children about where to wait things out. 

Israeli families with ties to Chicago are seeking refuge and trying to provide their school-aged children with a continuation of their routines and structure to minimize the effects of war. While some were already in the city for the Sukkot holiday, others arrived later seeking safety and familial support. Several Chicago natives who made aliyah returned, as well. Chicagoland Jewish Day schools are enrolling the students of displaced Israeli families and continue to receive new inquiries every day. At press time, there are 32 newly enrolled students and approximately 38-47 prospective students. "Enrolling these students is a "communal responsibility and duty," said Rabbi Menachem Linzer, Principal of Hillel Torah.  

Navigating the circumstances is challenging because no one knows how great the need will be or exactly what resources are required. "I have a great team that's good at planning for contingencies, but this situation is difficult to plan for because it's so fluid. We're figuring it out as we go," explained Gary Weisserman, Head of School at Bernard Zell Emet Day School.  

Logistical issues, such as figuring out the process of enrolling new students, whether and how long to waive tuition, managing limited classroom space, and assignments of emails, devices, lockers, and class schedules have kept school administrators busy. Providing resources, internally or through community partners for non-English or limited English-speaking children, professional development for teachers to handle this unique situation, and trauma recovery are also top priorities.  

The Day School Leadership Council, a working group of Jewish Day schools in Chicago, and JUF have convened weekly since the conflict began. The group works together to tackle these challenges and assist one another. "What truly stands out is the remarkable collaboration and support I've witnessed among Jewish day schools in Chicago during this crisis," said Zivya Feifel Mosbacher, Assistant Vice President, Planning and Allocations for JUF. "If one school develops an intake form agreement, they share it. If another discovers a good resource for ESL/ELL support, they share it."    

Lena Kushner, Head of School at Solomon Schecter Day School and co-chair of the Council, echoed these sentiments. "I witnessed the power of collaboration, collective goals, and support for one another," she said. "It's a mission in action." 

The outpouring of love that displaced families have received from their communities is heartwarming. The schools' parent organizations have been incredibly active, housing families, loaning cars, organizing meals, and donating toys and winter gear for the children. "They have opened their homes, but more importantly their hearts," Weisserman added.  

The impact is tremendous. Allison Packer, an Israeli parent, explained, "You can't imagine what a gift it is for my son to be in a classroom with teachers and children like the ones at Solomon Schechter. It's everything to my husband and me. It anchors our family at a time we need to be grounded." 

In addition to being welcomed at their schools, displaced children are already demonstrating resilience. "The other day I saw a new student taking a math test within days of arriving," recalled Lizner, "and a newly enrolled first grader skipping down the hallway, looking like they've been here for years."  

Soraya Fata is a Chicago-based freelance writer and attorney. 

"Enrolling these students is a "communal responsibility and duty..."

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