Program sees peer-to-peer interaction as 'first aid'

‘Digital pen pals’ program connects North American and Israeli teens during wartime

Now in its fourth year, the One2One initiative facilitates English conversations and cultural exchange between thousands of Jewish high schoolers on opposite sides of the world

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Composite image showing One2One participants on an undated video call, over a map connecting the US and Israel. (courtesy)
Composite image showing One2One participants on an undated video call, over a map connecting the US and Israel. (courtesy)

Rom Buchacho, an 11th-grade student from Netanya, was surprised to learn that young Jewish people across the globe are going through their own set of challenges resulting from the October 7 massacre, after signing up for a program that pairs Jewish teens in Israel with counterparts in North America for a series of one-on-one video conversations.

“Here in Israel we go through the war, the rocket sirens and the news and everything, but we have our country, our people and our army,” she said. In America, said Buchacho, her conversation partner doesn’t always feel like she belongs, especially “when she goes to school and there are pro-Palestinian students who bring flags. It’s scary to live like that. It really surprised me.”

It turned out that the two girls “have so much in common, although we live so far from each other. I had a great time with her talking about the situation and about the differences in how we are going through all of this,” Buchacho said.

The program they participated in, One2One, was started during the height of the COVID epidemic in 2021 and now is in its fourth year, with increasing demand. In the first year, the program had 600 participants, 2,500 in the second and 4,100 in the third, according to figures provided by One2One. For the current school year, the program’s fourth, the organizers expect that over 5,000 students will take part.

Due to a surge in Israeli demand, the One2One team is scrambling to find enough English-speaking partners in North America, the staff said.

Based on the old idea of pen pals, the program aims to foster mutual understanding, connection and dialogue between Israeli and North American Jewish high school students, organizers said.

Participants in the One2One program on a video call, in an undated image. (courtesy)

One2One is an initiative of ENTER, a Jerusalem-based foundation started by Charles Bronfman and other philanthropists. The English-language discussions are arranged in a series of five weekly meetings and last for at least 30 minutes each. Individual matching is done by an algorithm based on age, interests and background, not unlike a dating service, and are private.

“I’ve done the One2One program twice now and both times I was matched with people who I had deep, meaningful, fun, and most importantly easy conversations with,” said Buchacho’s conversation partner, Danielle Borsutsky, an 11th grader in New Jersey, via email.

She said that around the outbreak of the war, her school received attention from local news networks and Fox News due to divisiveness among students. “People crowded in the cafeterias and screamed offensive comments at each other, there were Palestinian flags brought to school, and a lot of inappropriate and antisemitic posts made by people in my school directed at other kids.”

“It was interesting to me that my partner in Israel felt safer in her school than I did in mine. Since she knew everyone at her school was Israeli, the sense of togetherness made her feel like no matter what, her classmates and teachers would be by her side,” Borsutsky said.

Karina Ariev, 19, was taken captive early in the morning of October 7, 2023, by Hamas terrorists. (Courtesy)

October 7 hits close to home

Besides being a topic for conversation and sharing, the Israel-Hamas war has affected participants directly: one of the inaugural Israeli One2One participants, Karina Ariev, was kidnapped on October 7 and is still being held hostage in Gaza. She was one of three young women shown in a video released by Hamas last week.

Ariev, 19, had participated in One2One in 2022. After graduating high school she began her IDF service and was on assignment as a forward observer along the Gaza border when her base was overrun by Hamas terrorists on the morning of October 7.

The thousands of Hamas-led terrorists who invaded southern Israel that day brutally murdered 1,200 people, the majority of them civilians, including 360 mostly young people at a music festival. Roughly 253 people were also abducted to the Gaza Strip, where about half are still being held — not all of them alive.

Ariev’s kidnapping shows that One2One’s work “is about real people. When you read about someone online it’s something far off, but this is different,” Yael Rosen, One2One director, told The Times of Israel.

“For global Jewry, these times are affecting all of us. Teens and their communities everywhere are going through challenges they didn’t expect. On the Israeli side, we hear from schools and teachers that they and their students want to connect with Jewish teens abroad, especially now,” she noted. “We frame One2One as ‘interaction as first aid.’ We see this as something urgently needed by both sides.”

Sharing in wartime

The Times of Israel recently held a joint video call with a small group of teens who had gone through the program. Some of them have participated multiple times over the last few years.

Talia Decoursey, an 11th grader from upstate New York, completed the program twice. The first was last spring, which she said was a great preparation for a summer Israel trip with BBYO. But her next time with One2One was during the Israel-Hamas war, in November.

Participants in the One2One program on a video call, in an undated image. (courtesy)

“I feel like the program was a really good way to support each other during this time. Obviously, we are in different situations… but [my partner] can understand how things are here, and I can kind of understand how things are there. We can support each other in that way,” she said.

“Most of my friends in America aren’t Jewish. They try to be supportive but they sometimes don’t get it,” Decoursey added.

Avia Biton, a 10th grader who lives in the small southern Israeli community of Meitar, was paired with Decoursey for the November session. “My second time, I was with Talia. I enjoyed talking with someone from America to learn how they felt during the war, with all the antisemitism. It surprised me when she told me many people there don’t know what’s going on here. It’s become a trend to hate Israel and to support Gaza,” she said.

Adi Wagner-Jaget, a ninth grader at the Yitzhak Shamir High School in Tel Aviv, admitted that she didn’t know much about American Jewish culture before she participated.

“I did hear that they celebrate some other holidays than what we do,” she said. “I didn’t know that Jewish people also celebrate Halloween. That actually surprised me a lot, I thought it was a Christian holiday. And they do Thanksgiving, and many things that I didn’t know existed.”

Improving English, improving ties

Israeli pupils often think about “this dreamlike world of the American Jews, but they don’t truly know. I think that now, with the rising levels of antisemitism abroad, awareness of the complexity of Jewish life in the United States is something very new to Israeli teenagers,” Tziona Levi, director of the languages department and English education in the Education Ministry, said in a recent phone call.

A student raises her hand in class. (Courtesy Alexander Muss High School in Israel via JTA)

The One2One program is implemented in Israel through liaising with high school English teachers, overseen by Levi and her department. Improving Israeli students’ English abilities, especially their spoken English, is one of the program’s primary goals.

Noa Kinan, a 12th-grader in the northern town of Nahariya, has completed the One2One program three times and plans for a fourth. Her participation has “definitely helped with my English,” she said.

She still isn’t fluent, but her speaking has gotten much better, she said, and described “a struggle with talking” during her first sessions. “I was opening a dictionary, I wasn’t sure if it would work. My partner was very supportive and understanding, and we managed to communicate,” she recalled.

Topics for discussion are prepared ahead of time for the teens, “but when they meet I am sure they don’t talk about them. The program is one-to-one, no one interferes, no one listens, so it gives them a lot of self-confidence, which is one of the most important factors in learning a foreign language,” said Mercedes Hadad, a veteran English teacher and among the first to sign up her students for One2One.

Over the summer, just ahead of the war, Borsutsky, whose New Jersey high school got so much media attention, visited Israel with a partner of One2One, RootOne.

“It made me grateful that I could see everything I saw in Israel before the war broke out, but also horrified that it all changed so quickly,” said Borsutsky. “It’s constant thoughts of, ‘Did anything happen to the places I visited?’ or ‘Are the people I met during the trip all safe?’”

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