Teaching students about multi-culturalism – in Israel

The Operation Unity Kibbutz program sends groups of 10 African American and Latino high school students from Los Angeles to live for six weeks on a kibbutz.Cookie Lommel tells a funny story about hiking around a Negev Desert kibbutz date …

The Operation Unity Kibbutz program sends groups of 10 African American and Latino high school students from Los Angeles to live for six weeks on a kibbutz.Cookie Lommel tells a funny story about hiking around a Negev Desert kibbutz date field with one of her Operation Unity charges, in this case a Hispanic high school student from East Los Angeles. He was excited about some new friends he’d made – a group of students visiting from Korea – and how much he’d learned about Korea from them, and was pleased that they were so curious about Mexico.

“You live about a mile away from the largest Korean community outside of Korea, but you had to come all the way to Israel to find out about the Korean culture,” Lommel told him.

It’s this kind of simple truth and irony that makes Operation Unity such a huge success.

Lommel, inspired by the 1991 airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, founded the Los Angeles-based program in 1993 to “help people come together, especially our young people, and provide them with new vistas and possibilities.”

The program brings American kids to Israel to expose them to the way people of different backgrounds can assimilate and work together on kibbutzim. They bring the lessons they learn back to the United States, where many young people have no interaction with people from other cultures even though they may live right beside them.

Lommel, an African-American and a journalist in the music industry, traveled to Israel for the first time in 1993 to see for herself how Israel was treating newly arriving Ethiopian Jews.

Israeli representatives for foreign journalists took her to Absorption Centers for Ethiopians, which were “all over the place.” Lommel was impressed with the program. “They were doing interesting things, some were social workers, some were already serving in the military.”

She was also impressed on an emotional level. “The Ethiopians were so happy to be there, and all the Israelis I spoke to were so happy they had ‘come home.’ I decided that if Israel could do such an incredible thing between Africans and Jews, then certainly in America we could do something to bring African-American and Jewish communities in closer contact.”

With some help from the president of Geffen Records, who invited her to have the first meeting at his offices, and other music industry executives, Lommel started the Operation Unity Kibbutz Program.

Lommel visited several kibbutzim while in Israel and formed her vision for the program. “I had the idea that the cooperative living environment presented such a positive model of people living together and working together. I thought it was the perfect laboratory to understand diversity because Israel is not only such a multi-cultural place, but the kibbutz has the tradition of inviting young people to visit from all over the world.”

She called people from the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, members of the city council and her music industry friends to support the initial program, which started with student dialogues between churches and synagogues in Los Angeles.

“In America we don’t interact with one another,” Lommel said. “Teachers will often tell me kids sit right next to each other in class and they don’t know a thing about each other’s cultures.”

Israel has absorbed people from more than 80 countries around the world. There was no shortage of initial “culture shock.” The story of the Jewish woman from England arriving in Palestine in 1946 who, when seeing her Yemenite Jewish neighbor for the first time, sat down on her suitcase and cried is not unusual.

As the Los Angeles Deputy Consul General of the State of Israel, Uriel Palti said in a recent class he taught on multi-culturalism, “Israel is a mosaic of people from around the world.”

Through the Operation Unity Kibbutz Program groups of 10 African American and Latino high school students become Young Ambassadors of Harmony from the Los Angeles Unified School District and stay for six weeks on an Israeli kibbutz. The project is partly funded by the Jewish Community Foundation and other philanthropic organizations and individuals.

The teenagers are selected from a group of students who have expressed an interest in the program and whose guidance counselors agree that they would benefit from the experience.

“Organizations such as Operation Unity, which take the initiative to expand young people’s horizons should be commended because this can’t be experienced in a classroom or through a textbook,” said a school district representative. “The (district) is appreciative that such a program exists and we hope that these students will continue to share good things they learned with others, who may still be lacking in their ability to break down race barriers.”

In an article that was printed in the Los Angeles Times, Christian Tavarez, one of the first students in Operation Unity, wrote: “The trip was the greatest experience I have had because I live in a country where history, race and religion seem to be the most important things. While I was in Israel, those things were dismissed. My being Afro-Latin was dismissed. The only things that mattered were my feelings, emotions and thoughts as a human being.”

Three years later, Tavarez summarized his feelings at a photo exhibit on Operation Unity, displayed at the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles. “With this trip came the responsibility of reaching out, teaching the message of understanding – that life is more than color and beliefs. Life is about people caring and helping each other.”

Lommel plans to take Tavarez and Alisha Talamantes, another early participant in the program, and now both young adults, back to Israel this year. The school district program is temporarily on hold because of the conflict, but both Tavarez and Talamantes are eager to go back.

For them the risk is relative to the dangers of life in south central Los Angeles, or as Tavarez wrote in 1994, “From my point of view, kibbutz life is easier. I didn’t have to worry about getting shot just going from my house to a friend’s house.”

Another student, Valerie Weldon, spoke movingly of befriending an elderly woman who had lost her entire family during the Holocaust. “When we got back to Los Angeles, I was speaking to a group of sixth graders at a synagogue about my experiences on the kibbutz and suddenly, I started to cry. I realized that my kibbutz trip changed my life in ways that are continuing.”

Lommel emphasized the impact these students have when they come back home and address school assemblies as part of the Young Ambassadors of Harmony Speakers Bureau. “I can talk about this program all day, but when they hear their peers talk about the program, it really makes a difference.”

The students in the audience then fill out evaluation sheets. As one 16-year-old wrote, “I had thought of Israel as a war-torn battlefield. Learning that there are people in Israel of different cultures living together peacefully seems to signify that there is hope.”

The mission of Operation Unity was affirmed in the evaluation submitted by a 17-year-old at Dorsey High School. “I think the most valuable lesson was that everyone is different and just because they are different doesn’t mean you can’t learn something about them and learn to appreciate them.”

Lommel hopes to eventually expand Operation Unity so she can take larger groups of students, 20 or 30 at a time, to Israel. Her focus remains bringing people together. In 1998, she collaborated with school district teachers in writing and editing a high school curriculum, “Life Skills for the 21st Century,” and teacher’s manual, “Focus on the Multicultural Classroom,” for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Lommel is working with other organizations such as the B’nai B’rith of Southern California, to expand awareness of her program, and to do more speaking engagements at African-American colleges where she says there are still negative feelings about Israel.

Cookie Lommel’s community outreach efforts have earned her a number of awards: a Community Service Award from The National Conference; a Certificate of Recognition from the City of Los Angeles; a Mayor’s Commendation from the City of Santa Monica; and an Official Honor from the State of Israel.