‘This is a way to see Israel as a land made up of Israelis and not just what they see on the news.’King Solomon, that right royal chess grandmaster of yesteryear, would no doubt have approved of a unique program. For the past three years, thanks to an Israeli initiative, American, Ukrainian and Israeli children and adults have been pitting their chess wits against each other on a regular basis via the wonders of the Internet.

Using webcams and microphones to see and hear each other, and instant messaging to write to each other, several dozen Americans from Chicago, Israelis from the southern town of Kiryat Gat and Ukrainians from the capital of Kiev ‘meet’ and spend a few hours together online on a regularly basis as part of the trilateral Chess-Net program.

“We all meet at one location, the Weinger Jewish Community Center in (Chicago suburb) Northbrook and play chess as a group for two hours,” Brooke Leviton, who works on Overseas Programs and Projects for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, told ISRAEL21c. “The room we play in has about 12-15 computers and we fill them all. If I have more players than computers they will sometimes play games with each other off-line. I can get anywhere from 12-18 players typically.”

One of the main added values of the Chess-Net program is that these youngsters are not just swapping chit-chat over the cyberwaves, they are spending quality time on a meaningful cerebrally-challenging and competitive pursuit. It is a sort of cultural exchange and an opportunity to get to know something about each other’s lives all rolled into one.

“This is not only a way to play chess but a way to connect with Jews throughout the world,” Leviton continues. “We email back and forth in English. I type for them while they play, but mostly it is a way to connect that is not completely dependent upon language and for them to put a face on the term ‘Israelis’.”

The Chess-Net program is part of a grander Jewish Agency initiative called Partnership 2000 which seeks to strengthen ties between Israeli communities and communities abroad.

“There are other support projects which provide help for Israel, but they generally focus on budgets and construction,” says Yehuda Oren who runs the Israeli end of the chess pursuit in Kiryat Gat. “This is the first project that actually forges direct bonds between people in Israel and Jews in the Diaspora.”

Oren says the program also provides important social input, on all sides of the cyber divide. “What really attracted me about Chess-Net is its ability to involve people of all walks of life, and from all social strata. I looked for something that would appeal to all kinds of people. We have a very wide range of people, from different ethnic, social and cultural backgrounds, in Kiryat Gat and the surrounding Lakhish region. I was also looking for something that would appeal to as wide a cross-section of people as possible from Chicago. Chess-Net does that,” he told ISRAEL21c.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Chicagoan chess players naturally know a thing or two about Israel, but Chess-Net allows them to gain a more grass roots take on life here, and to get to know Israelis of their own age on a one-to-one basis.

“I speak to all of the participants both before the event and while they play,” says Leviton. “I show them where Kiryat Gat is on the map. Many of these children, but not all, have never been to Israel. This is a way to see Israel as a land made up of Israelis and not just what they see on the news. I feel that if I can get them to see that children there are just like them, with the same interests, that they bond.”

Northbrook, Chicago resident Liz Geifman, whose 10-year-old son Max is a keen participant in Chess-Net, expresses similar sentiments. “looks forward to each opportunity to play Internet chess with the kids in Israel. He enjoys the challenge – finding the Israeli participants tough competition – and enjoys communicating back and forth throughout the matches. I think that it has given him an opportunity to understand that, in addition to being Jewish, he has much in common with the Israeli kids.”

Geifman also feels the high-tech international connection will probably take on more tangible form in the future. “Our family has many reasons for wanting to visit Israel some day. The Internet chess experience has definitely given our son one more way to feel connected to Israel.”

Max agrees with his mom. “It’s fun and you get to meet more friends from Israel and Russia,” says Geifman Jr.

Although ten-year-old Aaron Freeman from Wheeling, Illinois has yet to visit Israel he says the chess games have given him a sense of closeness with his counterpart at the other end of the cyberlink.

“I now feel I have some common ground with my Israeli chess partner because I can see him and talk to him,” says Freeman. “That’s a great part of the whole thing.”

Michael Kamerlink, Chicago Chess-Net co-chairperson and Partnership 2000 Steering Committee member says he believes the program will benefit children in Kiryat Gat and Chicago in the future too. Kamerlink says that he, personally, has made a valuable connection through Chess-Net.

“Yehuda Oren, the Israeli co-chair, and I have a special friendship since taking on this position in Chicago. Our friendship has grown stronger.”

The warm feelings extend to the young players, he believes. “I get the feeling this opens the eyes of the kids here to realize that there are kids in Israel just like themselves. I also have the feeling it is the beginning of developing long-term friendships for them.”

Leviton also sees Chess-Net having a positive effect when it comes to building relationships and friendships, and hopes that the chess partners will get a chance to meet in person.

“Chicago sends many missions throughout the year to the Kiryat Gat area and I think that when these children go to Israel they would like to see their Israeli friends.”