Epstein Hillel helping Israeli families find temporary home

Two brothers from Israel make peace signs while attending class at Epstein Hillel School. Photo by Epstein Hillel School

Despite being an ocean apart, one school in town has not let that deter it from helping families in need during a time of war.

Since the Israel-Hamas war broke out in October, Epstein Hillel School has been taking in students and families from war-torn parts of Israel, and is doing what it can to make them feel welcome in a new environment.

“For us as a school to be able to embrace these children and their families, what I truly feel is that we’re giving them back a piece of their childhood,” Head of School Amy Gold said.

As a Jewish school that celebrates Jewish holidays and uses Hebrew in the classroom, Epstein Hillel has made an effort to make the transition for students and their families as easy as it can be. Currently, the school has 11 Israeli students from six families, four of which have relatives living close by on the North Shore. 

“Naturally, this educational environment would feel the most familiar to them versus going to a public school or another private school,” Gold said. 

The school welcomed its first student during the second week of October and had its most recent student join in early November. Since it began taking students in, some have already returned to Israel. No matter how long or short their stay in Marblehead is, Gold says the school is aiming to support them under its “Epstein Hillel Experience” values. Among those are compassion, community, and specifically identity, which focuses on the Jewish identity of the school and its students and feeling connected to Israel.

Transferring schools can be difficult enough, let alone attending one in another country. Despite that challenge, Gold said not only are the students adjusting well, they are thriving. 

“They get to go to school everyday, make new friends, keep on learning, have social experiences,” Gold said. “And just have a break, mentally, physically, emotionally from the stress of having been in Israel and worrying about ‘Where is the nearest bomb shelter that I need to be able to get to if the rockets come down.’”

One teacher at the school, who requested to remain anonymous due to safety concerns, has two grandchildren who fled Israel just days after the war broke out.

Some of the children are not fluent in English, but in order to make them feel like they are in a comfortable learning environment, they are provided with translators and any other assistance they need to excel in the classroom as foreign students.

“We make sure that everyone has someone who can translate or can help them, to do everything that they are going to feel comfortable and wanted and part of the community,” she said. 

She added that having her grandchildren be fortunate enough to come to the school was “a lifesaver” and that many other parents have expressed the same gratitude. 

“The parents all the time say ‘Thanks, you guys are saving my kids,” she said.

While the school is bringing in families from Israel, they are also raising money to send back to the country. To date, Epstein Hillel has raised more than $4,000 for a kibbutz, a communal living space unique to Israel, located near the border with the Gaza Strip that was devastated by Hamas’ attacks. 

The school had reached out to leaders in the kibbutz, Nahal Oz, and since the partnership began, students have made strong connections with members of the kibbutz by writing letters and sending videos back and forth.

“We’re really helping to make a personal connection to a small community from our small community,” Gold said. 

The school also held an educational evening for students earlier this month to teach community members about life along the Gaza border and to discuss ways to potentially make peace between the Palestinian and Israeli peoples.