By Robin B. Zeiger
About the Author: The author, Robin B. Zeiger, Ph.D., a resident of Richmond Virginia for 18 years is now living in Emek Hefer, Israel with her family. She writes a monthly column for the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond's newspaper on life in Emek Hefer. She is also a clinical psychologist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Strains of Louis Armstrong's, What a Wonderful World are intermixed with children's chatter.
A smiling group of fourth-grade students practice their carefully choreographed music routine in their gym. At first glance, the scene appears typical of a school rehearsal for a program.
Yet, this scene is far from typical. The background chatter is Hebrew. Attentively the group listens to the directions of their two teachers, spoken in slow English punctuated by very animated gestures.
Every once in awhile, the teachers thrown in a Hebrew phrase or two. It is Friday afternoon before the weekend break. The students finish their routine with a flourish. These students are good. They look like professional dancers. It is hard to believe they have been practicing for only 10 days. They are clearly ready for their community program on Sunday and Monday. Yet, rather than getting ready for a weekend break, the students beg in unison, od paam (one more time).
This is the first time that Richmond Ballet's Minds in Motion program has gone international. The international program was the brain child of a joint partnership between the Richmond Ballet, the Virginia Israel Advisory Board of the Governor's office, and the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond. Brett Bonda, Director of the Minds in Motion Program and Katherine Smothers, teaching artist, have traveled to the Beit Yitzhak elementary school in Moshav Beit Yitzhak, a small agricultural community in the Emek Hefer region of Israel to spend two weeks teaching the students and their teachers about Mind's in Motion, a 15-year old program that has already touched the lives of thousands of students in the greater Richmond area.
Katherine and Brett exude enthusiasm and a clear love of what they are doing. It is easy to see why the students are doing so well. Brett and Katherine are master teachers. Brett runs to and fro. Yet he happily stops for a moment, perches himself on the bleachers and describes their vision. "Minds in Motion, is an excellent program as an international endeavor. It teaches tolerance through motion. The student learns self-awareness, team-work, and empowerment." All students, regardless of disabilities or special needs are welcomed. This group in Emek Hefer is no exception. Students with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and, Asperger's blend in with the group.
The principal, Vivian Garber, explains initially she was a bit skeptical. However, the Beit Yitzhak School places a heavy emphasis on the importance of art, theatre and dancing as a way to enhance the mind. Vivian explains, "After the first day, all of the children were so excited and full of life and energy. They waited excitedly everyday for that one hour where they get to practice." She also adds that the teachers and counselors were amazed at how well-behaved the children were when they participated. Some students came to school just for that one hour, even though they weren't' feeling well. In her words, "They all feel that they are 'dancing with the stars' and that the stars have come just for them "
What about communication with the children? While students in Israel learn English as part of their curriculum, historically fourth-graders know very little. Brett and Katherine were both directing the routines almost entirely in English. Brett explains, "We don't really need language. Music and dance are universal." The children have soaked up much of the English and are already steps ahead of other fourth--grade Israeli students. With a smile, Bonda and Suthers show off Hebrew phrases they have learned from the children.
The children needed to put in their two cents. After practice, a group of students crowd around, all talking at once, some in Hebrew and some in broken English. One little girl, Mika, proudly shows off her command of English, "They should stay forever!" The others chime in; perhaps expecting a reporter can make it so. They beg, "Cant' they please stay?" They then proudly sing for me a song about the Emek Hefer/Richmond connection that they have learned entirely in English.
Why Emek Hefer? The seeds of this endeavor were sowed almost by accident. The VIAB's primary mission is to forge connections between businesses in Virginia and businesses in Israel. Jeremy Weisman, a resident of Moshav Beit Yitzhak, where the school is located, is involved in innovative ways for waste management in rural communities. At Ralph's invitation he traveled to Virginia to expand his business in the United States. The VIAB is also involved in forging cultural and educational connections. While at a meeting of the VIAB, Weisman heard about Minds in Motion and said, "This is a perfect program for our school here." Bonda was itching to do an international exchange. Ralph was excited. Now one and half-years later the program has become a reality.
As an added bonus, Emek Hefer, an agricultural region with a population of approximately 35,000, is the Richmond Jewish Community's sister city. Under the auspices of the Jewish Agency for Israel's Partnership 2000, a living bridge has been created between the two communities. This program seeks to deepen Diaspora Jewry's connection with the people of Israel thru collaborative programs and exchanges. The connection between the two sister regions is a good one. Like Richmonders, Emek Hefer residents are warm and friendly. They go that extra mile.
The students and teachers of Emek Hefer have been profoundly affected by this visit. But what about the visiting teachers? The answer is a resounding yes. For both Bonda and Suthers, this is their first trip to Israel. Bonda says he hasn't slept much. In-between teaching the two have been shuttled around from place to place site-seeing, visiting and just meeting folks. Brett adds, "It is like family here." Katherine chimes in "The personal experience is priceless. If we came on our own to tour, it wouldn't have been anywhere near as rewarding."
What of the future? Robbins and Bonda are already thinking about the next step. Their dream is to find a way for the children of Richmond and the children of Emek Hefer to perform together. Ralph explains, "That would be powerful. The children are our ambassadors for peace and tolerance."