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On Saturday night, 24 students from the Magen elementary school in Tel Aviv left for a two-week visit to a Jewish school in Los Angeles. Seemingly, a worthy project. But the trip, jointly organized by the Tel Aviv municipality and the Jewish community of Los Angeles, came under fire from several parents, who said the prohibitive cost - $2,000 per person - created a sharp social divide among the children.

According to the parents, the visit became a status symbol that separated the haves from the have-nots. They also complained that neither the content nor the procedural aspects of the trip were monitored by the Education Ministry.

"Financial means should not play a role in state-sponsored education," one parent said. "It's strange that we, as parents, are taking up what is essentially the ministry's job."

Exchanges between Tel Aviv and Los Angeles schools began in 1997, as part of a project sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, the Jewish Agency and the Tel Aviv municipality. Today, 19 schools in Tel Aviv participate in the program. The visits last 12 to 14 days, during which the children stay with Jewish families and visit Jewish schools.

Seven of the 19 participating schools are elementary schools. Their delegations, comprised of fifth- and sixth-graders, normally consist of 10 to 15 students, but Magen sends as many as 30 every time. Although most of the costs are covered by the organizers, parents are required to pay for the flight, which costs about $2,000.

Eran Fox, a parent at Magen, told Haaretz that the scheme was meant "to promote certain subjects and values, but has only been partially successful. The greatest emphasis is placed on consumerism and entertainment. Sadly, I didn't realize that when I sent my son. But when he came back, he told me all about the fun they had - Disneyland, an NBA game, the beach, and so on and so forth."

"Ahead of the trip, the kids were primarily preoccupied with what to wear when they met the Americans and what they would get at the malls," another parent said. "The scheme is presented as a value-based educational program, but the trips to Disneyland and Universal Pictures studios are really the centerpiece ... At the end of the day, this is a kind of a field trip for rich kids that takes place in Los Angeles."

A third parent complained that "some families can barely make ends meet. The school betrays its mission when it put us under pressure from the kids, and from our fear of somehow impairing our children's social life."

The parents also charged that the school pressures children to join the delegation. "They actually tell them that the delegation is cool, that if they don't go they'll be socially isolated, and even that they should tell their parents to buy the ticket because the dollar is so weak," one parent said.

A source in the Education Ministry termed the trips "another example of the privatization of the education system, a process with which the ministry has been blindly cooperating for years."

"Tighter monitoring and setting clear criteria would bring about a more equitable policy, but this just isn't a priority," the source added.

The chairwoman of the project's education committee, Dr. Bruria Agrest, responded that the program provides scholarships for children whose parents cannot afford to pay, and that though Disneyland and Universal Pictures feature on the program, the rest of the time is dedicated to Jewish life in Los Angeles. Magen's principal, Orna Nir, said there was "no pressure whatsoever on students to convince parents to let them go." She added that the program itself does not include shopping malls, but host families sometimes take their guests there.

The Education Ministry said in a statement that its director general, Shimshon Shoshani, "has ordered a thorough review of the whole matter," and the ministry would not comment on the parents' claims until the review is complete.