Year One of “Shinshinim” Young Ambassadors Program: Transforming Greater Boston

IMG_0808.2015-09-25_153231By Ruth Kaplan

Israel is really far away, 7000 miles and 11 hours even flying direct. Israel can be divisive – many people hold strong views politically, which can result in total disengagement by young people who would rather avoid controversy.

It seems to be getting more challenging all the time to get young Jews in particular to care and engage with Israel.

The CJP Boston-Haifa Connection, a program that has been bringing Americans and Israelis together for nearly 30 years, has identified at least one solution: the “Shinshinim” Young Israeli Ambassadors Program. In partnership with The Jewish Agency for Israel, this program brought two recent high school graduates to volunteer in our community for a gap year prior to their military service. Arriving in the late summer of 2015, Sapir Reznik and Yael Mark lived with a total of six different host families over the course of the past ten months, and served as energetic and outstanding representatives of the Jewish state, bringing enthusiasm and passion to every setting they touched. These two teens, who will enter the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soon after they return to Israel, have left a lasting impression on our community, impacting hundreds of community members, from pre-school age to senior citizens.

Temple Israel, Sharon

Each girl was assigned two primary synagogue sites, Yael at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley and Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, Sapir at Temple Shalom in Newton and Temple Emunah in Lexington. In addition, they led Israel-related activities at five Jewish day schools, including Jewish Community Day School, The Rashi School, Solomon Schechter Day School, Cohen Hillel Academy and Gann Academy. And that’s not all: they made visits and presentations at another dozen congregations throughout the year, as well as at youth groups, public and charter schools, independent schools, and senior centers.

These young women spoke at major Israeli Consulate events such as the Yitzchak Rabin Memorial and the special event celebrating the legacy of the late Dr. Martin Luther King. They helped to plan and implement portions of the CJP Boston Haifa Connection Hatikvah IDF Officers’ Mission, organized a Mimouna festival as well as a special teen event to celebrate Israel Independence Day. In addition, they connected with the Israeli scouts and campus Israel Fellows, the local Russian Jewish community, as well as undergraduates at Wellesley College, Brandeis University and Clark University

Engaging meetings took place with political leaders such as Congressman Joe Kennedy and Mayor Setti Warren of Newton. These encounters were mutually beneficial as these leaders, already supporters of Israel, were afforded unique insights about Israel through the lens of authentic Israeli teems, while the girls gained a deeper understanding of what connects non-Jewish political leaders to Israel, and what motivates them as public servants. Another highlight was hearing from and meeting Congressman John Lewis, a living legend in the civil rights movement.

Looking around the room at their going away party in June, I marveled at the community that has been created as a result of the presence of the Shinshinim this year. There was a room full of people, most of whom had never met each other before this year. There were Reform and Conservative rabbis who did not know each other, as well as Jewish professionals meeting for the first time. There were host family parents and children who did not necessarily have any prior connection to CJP. And there was a mighty force of volunteers from the CJP Boston-Haifa Connection Living Bridges Committee – the committee whose main mission is to deepen and strengthen ties to Israel by forging personal connections between our two communities. The members of this committee served as friends, mentors and Jewish moms and dads to Yael and Sapir throughout the year, inviting them for Shabbat, for holidays, for coffee, for lunch, taking them to cultural and sporting events, and genuinely taking the time to get to know them and ensure they never felt homesick. Indeed, their presence created a veritable kibbutz of American Jews, young and old, connected to them, connected to each other and connected more deeply and personally to Israel.

For the children and adults of our Greater Boston community, whatever news they hear about Israel in the future, it will no longer be an abstraction – it will be Yael and Sapir. If they recite the Prayer for the State of Israel and the IDF on Shabbat, they will now relate to this prayer personally. Indeed, Israel has been transformed to a personal connection for them. The synagogues who are now planning congregational trips to Israel, have already put Sapir and Yael on the itinerary.

And Yael and Sapir have also been transformed by the year’s experiences. They have gained an understanding of Jewish pluralism and diversity, and how challenging it is for Diaspora Jews to maintain a thriving community. They have become, as they put it, “double agents” for the Diaspora and for Israel. For them, the Diaspora is no longer an abstraction. It is all of us – their new friends and “Jewish mothers and fathers.” Moreover, they now understand that a synagogue is a welcoming community center as much as it is a place for prayer and reflection. They have come to understand that the Jewish community must maintain its institutions solely through the generosity of its members, in a country that maintains a strict separation between church and state. This is indeed not the case in Israel. They now know what it means to live as a small minority as opposed to the dominant majority.

In the words of the teens whose lives were touched by our young ambassadors:

“Dear Yael, Thank you for teaching at my school. During your class, I have learned more than I ever have at my religious school. You taught me about Israel, culture, history, and government. Also how to respect other peoples’ way of life. These are lessons I will never forget. You taught me this in fun ways.”

“Sapir, you have helped us learn about the way of life in Israel in a really cool and interesting way. We are always going to be thankful that you came and helped us become Jewish adults.”

This is the magic of the Shinshinim program – Israel presented by “cool” and “fun” teens.

The CJP Boston-Haifa Connection and its partner The Jewish Agency, should be so proud of the stunning accomplishment of Year One of our Shinshinim Young Ambassadors Program. We have made a huge difference in the lives of countless community members, we have transformed two future Israeli leaders who are now imbued with a deep understanding of Jewish peoplehood, and we have planted the seeds for our next generation to love an Israel they can now relate to in a personal way – the home of Sapir and Yael.

Ruth Kaplan manages the Shinshinim program for CJP. She is the former Director of the CJP Boston-Haifa Connection, and is engaged with multiple initiatives in the Boston area to build bridges between Israelis and Americans through people-to-people relationships, and to deepen the community’s engagement with Israel. She can be reached at ruthlenorekaplan@gmail.com.