By Alanna Berman
Each week day, 22 children living in Tijuana rise before the sun to catch a shuttle that takes them to school. Why wake so early? School isn’t just around the corner, or even in the next town over. Rather, these kids traverse 40 miles and one international border to arrive at Chabad Hebrew Academy in Poway. The approximately one-and-a-half hour trip from Mexico, depending on traffic and border wait times, gets students in grades K-8 to CHA’s campus just in time for the start of 8 a.m. classes. After school, the students take the same shuttle home to Mexico, often not arriving until about 5 p.m.
For many of their young peers, this daily commute might feel burdensome, but having access to a quality Jewish education is worth the sacrifice for these children and their families.
“The commute definitely takes a toll on the students,” says Rabbi Mendel Polichenco, who runs the Chabad House in Tijuana. “It would even take a toll on an adult to be in a car for that long, but these students understand the importance of a Jewish education and being in a Jewish environment, so the time that they spend getting to school [and back] is worth it.”
Although collaboration between Chabad centers is not unusual, international collaboration, and to this is extent, is revolutionary. Following the closure of Chabad Tijuana’s Jewish day school, Rabbi Polichenco and Rabbi Josef Fradkin, head of school at CHA, decided to forge their two communities, each accepting responsibility for ensuring Jewish children living in Mexico did not go without a Jewish education.
From the Beginning
The Jewish day school in Tijuana, Colegio Israelita de Tijuana, closed its doors nearly five years ago following a decline in enrollment and in the face of an international drug war, being played out on the streets of Mexico’s border towns.
“There weren’t enough children to keep the school going,” Rabbi Polichenco says, “but I didn’t want to leave the children without a Jewish education. So before I closed the school, I spoke with Rabbi Fradkin about the possibility of bringing the children to CHA… The children get an excellent education [at CHA], and it works out well for everybody.”
Rabbis Polichenco and Fradkin have known each other nearly 20 years, so when Rabbi Polichenco’s community needed help, Rabbi Fradkin did what he could, offering the children of Chabad Tijuana’s 45 families spots at CHA, while Rabbi Polichenco coordinated carpools into the U.S.
These days, two 15-passenger vans transport students to CHA every day. The vans, drivers and students each carry a quick pass for crossing the border, called the SENTRI. Despite what can sometimes be seemingly endless waits to cross the border during the morning commute, Rabbi Polichenco says the traffic on the U.S. side is actually worse.
In the early years or the partnership, Rabbi Fradkin reached out to local Chabad community to offset the additional cost associated with CHA’s new international students, to cover both transportation and tuition costs.
“[We offer] a subsidized [tuition] cost, not dependent on a family’s ability or inability to pay,” Rabbi Fradkin says. “We actually have a very strong tuition subsidy for students coming from Tijuana that’s specific for their needs because of the significant devaluation of the peso and the constant fluctuation of currency. [This] alternate rate enables them to attend our school, some on a full scholarship, and some at a very minimal cost, thanks to members of our school community.”
Rabbi Fradkin says the school also assists these students in procuring educational visas, called the I-20, which need to be renewed before the start of each school year. Additional resources for the families of these students are available while they are at CHA.
Eighth grade student Fernando Sur, who has been attending CHA since first grade, says on his first day there, the only English words he knew were ‘cat’ and ‘house’ — a situation typical of many students coming from Mexico to attend school in the U.S. for the first time. Now, he’s trilingual, speaking fluent English and Hebrew (as well as his native Spanish), thanks to the programs at CHA.
“We have very strong systems in place with ELL, or English Language Learners with remediation,” Rabbi Fradkin says. “Our focus is to try to provide as many resources as possible upon entry to the school for the [student’s] first year or two, and we focus a tremendous amount of resources at that time to ensure the children can be mainstreamed within the regular program, which is unique here since it is divided according to each child’s ability.”
Because CHA groups children in classes by ability, ELL students might be in an advanced math class while completing remedial courses in reading comprehension until they can catch up. CHA accounts for this extra need, adding extra staff to classes where younger kids new to English might need extra assistance.
“We have 10 staff for kindergarten and first grade and for remediation,” Rabbi Fradkin says. “We offer three specific staff for the students who come from Mexico. By the time these students leave CHA, they are fluent in Spanish, English and Hebrew, as well as being above grade level in all of their subjects, which is something we expect of all of our graduates.”
In Sur’s case, his perfect English pronunciation has helped him not only at CHA but also in his young acting career, and hopefully in the future as a director. He says he is “really thankful” for all that CHA has taught him, both secularly and religiously.
“I’ve been acting since I was 8 years old,” he says, having worked on about 15 films since then, most recently working with Tom Wilkinson and Dick Henry on a major release, “and my goal has always been to become a director, so whenever I get a chance to make a movie, that’s what I do, even in class.” (A year ago, Sur says, when given the opportunity to make a film for a science project on cell division, he took it.)
The flexibility in the curriculum at CHA has allowed many students to achieve success over the years, and in the case of Sur and his fellow Mexican Jewish students, it’s made all the difference.
“We try and encourage all students to demonstrate leadership at the school and care for each other, while demonstrating their own initiatives,” Rabbi Fradkin says. “In Fernando’s case, I remember when he was younger, I think in fourth grade, he was offering to teach staff and faculty Spanish during a lunch break. He really took ownership of his own talents and what he was able to do, and I thought this was so sweet of a fourth grader to do and really help others and make others’ lives better. I remember him going around the campus plastering the campus with signs for his class, and when I think of him I think of that great energy, and of what we’re trying to accomplish by instilling confidence in our students that they can use what they have to teach others and make others’ lives better. He exemplifies that.”
Besides a bolstering of multilinguality on campus, the addition of international students has brought an unexpected level of camaraderie among CHA’s entire student body.
When, about two months ago, a construction accident at the San Ysidro border crossing resulting in a temporary closing of the border, the CHA community banded together to ensure that Chabad Tijuana’s children had a safe place to stay for the night in the U.S.
“We had to arrange for those students to stay on the U.S. side, and so we coordinated that and arranged a place for the students to stay,” Rabbi Fradkin says. “The parents were very worried, but thanks to our community we were able to find a place for each of the students to stay on this side of the border.”
According to Sur, the border closing actually worked in his favor; he was able to stay at a classmate’s house and work on a project that evening before returning home at the end of the next day.
“The kids coming from Tijuana are of course very friendly with the American kids at the school, and there is no shortage of offerings for the kids to stay the night,” Rabbi Polichenco says. “If the kids have a long trip for school where they stay late, they [always] have someone to stay with, thankfully, because it would be exhausting for them to get up the next day after such a long day at school and then commuting home.”
Looking to the Future
Despite the occasional hiccup, Rabbis Polichenco and Fradkin say the partnership works wonders for all involved.
“What we put into it, we get out of it ten-fold, so it’s worth it,” Rabbi Fradkin says. “You seldom see such an extreme impact on a child as when you take them from another country, foster their English skills, and bring them up to be above par in the U.S. It means a lot to us because each year, we see students who’ve been affected by the program graduate from CHA.”
Today, all of Chabad Tijuana’s families with school-aged children send their kids to CHA, Rabbi Polichenco says. Recently, a stop was added to the shuttle service to pick up children living in Chula Vista who also attend CHA, creating a deeper sense of community among students living in Mexico and those living in the U.S. on long rides to and from school.
Most of the students will continue on to U.S. high schools after graduation from CHA, and many of them will look to continue their Jewish education in this chapter of their life too.
“They’re kids, and they need to be reminded of that occasionally, but that balance is important — letting them still be kids in an academically and high achieving environment, [and ensuring they] recognize the importance and value of what they’ve undertaken. They don’t want to waste their time while they are here,” Rabbi Fradkin says of the dedication he sees in the students coming from Mexico. “The children, no matter what, will remember the sacrifices they have made to get a Jewish education, and a college preparatory education at that.”
For more information on Chabad Hebrew Academy and its programs, visit www.chasd.org or call (858) 566-1996.