This is what the originators of the Israeli Young Emissary program envisioned more than a decade ago: bring Israeli youth to live in Connecticut Jewish communities for a year, and an enduring “living bridge” will be created.
Since the program was pioneered by UJA/Federation Westport Weston Wilton Norwalk in 1998, countless friendships have sprouted between Connecticut and Afula-Gilboa, the state’s sister region in northern Israel.
Each year, a new group of recent Israeli high-school graduates arrives in several Jewish federation communities throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts. The teens postpone their mandatory military service for a year to live with host families and bring Israel to life in area synagogues and Hebrew schools.
The program first began as a partnership between SNEC, the Southern New England Consortium of Jewish federations in Connecticut, and Project Renewal, an urban revitalization sister-city project of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). The Israeli Young Emissary program was one of the first steps in redefining the relationship between UJA/Federation WWWN and its sister region of Afula-Gilboa, turning Project Renewal into more of a two-way exchange. It is still the only Israeli program designed around emissaries, or “shlichim,” who are pre-army age.
By 2000, when JAFI renamed Project Renewal “Partnership 2000,” the Israeli Young Emissary Program was active in several communities throughout the SNEC region, including Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and had been replicated throughout the U.S. This year, eight Jewish federations are hosting two emissaries each.
The teens design and facilitate activities and discussions throughout their respective host communities, bringing alive their culture and society and engaging people of all ages in learning firsthand about life in Israel. But perhaps the most significant aspect of the program is what happens when the emissaries go back: they have created true connections between Israel and their adoptive Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
The Bermans of Westport decided to host Young Emissary Guy Hendel in 2008 “because it’s a connection to a world we would otherwise not be exposed to, especially the cultural and religious aspects of Israel,” says Betsy Berman. “And while Guy wasn’t particularly religious, he got to experience what it’s like to be Jewish in America.”
Among others who come into the emissaries’ orbit, many host families maintain long-distance friendships with the emissaries indefinitely. Through email, Facebook, and Skype, birthdays and holidays are celebrated, news and photos are exchanged, and families at either end of the emissary’s life get to know each other. Then there are the visits to Israel, usually the result of a seed planted when the emissary was in a SNEC community, inviting adoptive families and new friends to come see the country for themselves. Over the years, many families have attended the weddings of former Young Emissaries, and host siblings have spent time with emissaries while studying in Israel.
Over winter break, several Westport-area families accepted the offer. Instead of skiing the slopes or snorkeling the tropical seas, they set their vacation sights on reuniting with “their” emissaries in Israel.
The Bermans — Betsy and Larry, and sons Jake and Josh – hosted Guy Hendel three years ago. “It was always our plan to visit Guy,” says Betsy. “He would always tell us, ‘When you come to Israel, I’m taking you out for the best shawarma!’” When the family was invited to the bar-mitzvah celebration of Westport friends in Israel, they combined both opportunities.
Guy spent a day with the Bermans in Jerusalem when they first arrived, and joined them at the end of their trip in Tel Aviv. “He and my boys walked around arm in arm the entire time,” says Betsy. There are some noticeable changes, she says. “When Guy lived with us, he was bigger than my older son, Jake, but now Jake is bigger and Josh is nearly as big,” she says. “We could see the passage of time in the kids’ sizes because three years have passed.”
Now 21, Guy is a tank commander in the Israel Defense Forces. “When Guy was in Westport, he was in my sons’ lives and did what they did,” says Betsy. “Now his life is so different. He’s kind of famous because he’s in command of machinery that my kids only see in video games. They had a million questions about what it’s like to be in the army.”
The relationship continues to grow. Since their return, the Bermans have approached Friends of the Israel Defense Forces to make a donation to Guy’s battalion. They are researching opportunities for Guy to study abroad in the U.S., “because he tells us he’s ‘homesick’ for here,” Betsy says. And he sent the family an email, thanking them for the gifts they brought, and for keeping their promise to come see him. Aaron plans to return to Israel to work on an archeological dig.
Abby and Scott Greenspun hosted Naama Kalman in 2009, and she became a big sister to sons Aaron and Jesse. During her time in Westport, her parents and brother visited and the two families traveled together over spring break. “They kept saying, ‘You have to come to Israel!’” Abby recalls. The Greenspuns visited the Kalmans last year during Jesse’s bar mitzvah celebration, and returned again in December with the Bermans.
The Kalmans met the group at the airport with a huge basket of snacks, Abby says, and traveled with them to the Dead Sea and at the end of the trip, in Tel Aviv. Both Naama and her brother are serving in the Israel Air Force; Naama is one of only two women in a unit of more than 70. A newly promoted officer, she was granted two days off to visit with the Greenspuns.
“The Kalmans are the most generous people,” Abby says. “They gave us gifts and kept saying, ‘You’re family.’” Now both Greenspun boys want to go back to Israel for an extended stay.
If the Bermans and Greenspuns typify host families whose connection to Israel has grown because of their involvement in the program, Marcia Reinhard takes the experience one step further. Since 2008, the Mystic resident has been Young Emissary coordinator for the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, two years after she and her family hosted emissary Tohar Talmor.
The Reinhards moved to Mystic in 1999 and Marcia joined the faculty of Solomon Schechter Academy in New London a year later. In 2001, the Jewish Federation introduced the Israeli Young Emissary program to the community.
“I’ve always cared about Israel but it was a far-away place that I felt connected to only because of my Judaism,” Marcia says. “I was so thrilled when I heard that we would have these two Israeli teenagers.” For the next four years, she would get to know each new pair of emissaries through their involvement at Schechter, becoming more connected to the program and keeping in touch with the emissaries after they returned to Israel.
In 2006, the Reinhards – Marcia and Mike and their children, Jake and Beca – were finally chosen as a host family. In 2008, Marcia was asked by Jewish Federation executive director Jerry Fischer to head the program. “It’s extremely difficult every summer when the emissaries go back to Israel,” she says. “Every year, I would say, ‘I’m coming to see you,’ and the more I was with these kids, the more I would say it, but I didn’t know how I would afford to go.”
Marcia and Mike finally made the trip in 2010, the same summer their daughter Beca was taking part in a teen trip. They visited their “Israeli daughter,” Tohar, and “as many emissaries as we could,” Marcia says.
“Whatever connection I felt to Israel all the years before I was involved in the program, and then as coordinator, got stronger,” she says. “I was no longer disconnected, or connected only because of my shared heritage. Now this was the home of the kids I had hosted and worked with over so many years. Now Israel mattered to me on a whole different level: it was a place where I had fallen in love with the people.”
There is one reaction to the Israel experience that the originators of the Israeli Young Emissary program would no doubt be most proud to hear. It’s one shared by host families and coordinators alike, by the Greenspun and Berman boys and by Marcia Reinhard. It’s a promise as well as a hope that the living bridge between Israel and Jewish Connecticut will continue to thrive. When asked about their trips, the reaction is a simple one: “I want to go back.”