For Israeli teens on their first visit to the Twin Cities, our lack of snow in late March was reason enough for surprise- surely not at all what they expected! After all, hasn’t our Jewish community jokingly referred to itself as the “Frozen Chosen”? But for Nir Glatt, Or Shetreet, Shachar Agami, and Aviv Barel their surprise at our summer-like weather was nothing compared to their amazement at seeing Jewish women wearing kippot, tallitot and tefillin.
Nir, Or, Shachar and Aviv are part of a delegation of Israeli teens that spent last week in the Twin Cities as participants in the Young Ambassadors Program, a youth leadership development program based in Petach Tikvah, Israel. This delegation was the brainchild of Erez Frankel-Rubner, former Israeli Shaliach to St. Paul’s UJFC who now works with the “School for Young Ambassadors” back in Petach Tikvah, and Eilat Harel, of the Israel Center of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation.
The year-long training program, created in conjunction with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Education, carefully selects those tenth-grade students best suited to serve as representatives of the State of Israel. Meeting weekly, the program includes a range of coursework, educational tours, and meetings with various ethnic groups, diplomats, Holocaust survivors, public figures, and Jewish youth visiting from abroad. The ambassadors participate in television and radio programs and volunteer their time on behalf of senior citizens and sick children. Completion of the program opens doors into Israel’s Foreign Service and specialized army units.
A trip abroad is one of the highlights of the program. The ambassadors were hosted by local families with teenagers of their own. Thanks to Eilat Harel, of the Israel Center of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, the Israeli teens had many opportunities to meet with their peers, explore the Twin Cities, learn about Jewish life outside of Israel and embody their role as Israel’s young ambassadors.
These four teen ambassadors, along with two of their chaperones, Avi Ben-Hamo, Director General for the municipality of Petach Tikvah, and Rachel Amrani, Young Ambassadors program director, met with me to share their impressions of Jewish life in the Twin Cities, the messages they wish to convey to their American peers, and how they envision their own futures in Israel. Mature, articulate, knowledgable, thoughtful- Nir, Raviv, Or and Shachar possess all of these qualities and more.
The Israeli teens had effusive praise for the beauty of the Twin Cities and the warmth and cheeriness of the people. Our vaunted “Minnesota Nice” made a strong impression on them. “In every store, people tell you to have a nice day. People are so polite. That is a value I would like to bring back to Israel”, said Nir.
As first time visitors to the United States, I was most interested to know their impressions of Jewish life here, far from the Jewish homeland. All of the teens registered surprise upon seeing Jewish women wearing kippot, tallitot and in some instances, tefillin, practices not commonly seen in Israel. Yet they found the equality between men and women in religious life a beautiful thing that should continue. They were impressed with the level of religious education that Jewish kids receive, which in some cases exceeds their own. After sitting in on a discussion of Pesach in Dr. Yaakov Levi’s class at Talmud Torah, Shachar observed, “Students here learn more about Judaism than we do.”
Raviv was impressed by the effort that students invest in their Jewish education, coming to classes in the evening and on weekends. Remarked Or,”It makes me happy that they try to speak Hebrew”. In fact, Or, Shachar and Nir had all visited my CIS (College in the Schools) Hebrew class earlier in the week and were able to engage in a substantive conversation with their peers- all in Hebrew. My students were just as thrilled to be able use their Hebrew so well!
Learning about diaspora Jewish life was one aspect of the trip, but sharing messages about life in Israel was another critical goal. Throughout their week of interactions with both the Jewish and non-Jewish community the teens brought a personal message of Israel’s desire for peace. Said Raviv, “People don’t see the full picture of what Israel faces. People must know the truth in order to pass it on.” Added Ben-Hamo,”We Israelis are human beings that don’t want to harm Arabs.” All acknowledged how important it is for American Jewish teens to be knowledgeable about the reality in Israel and to feel prepared to answer challenges when they encounter them. And they were candid in their assessment that countering misinformation and distortions about Israel is an ongoing, and at times uphill, battle.
The Young Ambassadors radiate pride in Israel and love for their country. Nir reflected on the long arc of history, “We have survived every challenge, everything that has happened. We have a strong society that others would like to copy.” Raviv is proud of many things- of being part of an ancient people, of the process by which soldiers are trained, of Israel’s amazing technological achievements. The teens are optimistic about the future, both their own and Israel’s. Both Nir and Or expressed faith in their ability to shape attitudes of others toward Israel. Shachar hopes to be a group leader herself someday, teaching others to love and appreciate Israel.
Looking ahead, Amrani remarked, “We would like to see the connections established this week between Minnesota and Israeli teens strengthen and develop further, perhaps via Skype or videoconferencing.” The group also has a Facebook group: “Minnesota-Israel Delegation 2012“.
Ben-Hamo offered this final thought when reflecting on the week’s accomplishments, the connections made, the learning on both sides that took place, “These kids will go home to Israel feeling supported-you don’t know how much support there is outside of Israel until you see it yourself.”