Israel’s youngest emissaries: The ‘ShinShinim’

ISAAC HERZOG, Jewish Agency chairman, with agency ‘shlichim’ at the North American Shlichim Conference.

ISAAC HERZOG, Jewish Agency chairman, with agency ‘shlichim’ at the North American Shlichim Conference. (photo credit: NIR ARIELI)
ISAAC HERZOG, Jewish Agency chairman, with agency ‘shlichim’ at the North American Shlichim Conference.
(photo credit: NIR ARIELI)
Since graduating high school, Or Schraiber from Moshav Timorim has been spending the year in snowy Denver, Colorado. Hilli Lam from Haifa, 18, traveled to Los Angeles this fall and will remain in Southern California until next summer. These teenagers are not spending a relaxing gap year before beginning the next phase of their lives. Instead, they have joined 200 other Israeli high school graduates, among Israel’s most energetic, hard-working and effective shlichim (emissaries).
In Hebrew, they are called ShinShinim, which stands for shnat sherut, meaning “year of service.” They are part of a Jewish Agency program that sends Israeli high school graduates to volunteer in Jewish communities around the world for a 10-month stint prior to beginning their mandatory army service. The ShinShinim project, supported in part by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and Keren Hayesod-UIA, is now in its 20th year of operation, which this year sent 202 Israeli teens to Jewish communities in North America, Latin America, South Africa and Europe. ShinShinim volunteers spend a year immersed in the local Jewish community, teaching and educating the youth of the community about Israeli culture and society, the Hebrew language, current affairs and Jewish tradition.
Ruthi Mor Paz, acting director of the Shlichim and Israel Fellows Unit at the Jewish Agency, explains that the appeal of these young emissaries crosses all age boundaries. “They arrive with plenty of energy, ready to work, and they connect with all ages. They bond, not only with young children, but with students their own age. Adults in the communities treat them like their own children and grandchildren.” Participants in the program work in a variety of community environments, including youth organizations, Jewish community centers, senior adult centers, federations and university Hillel centers.
The ShinShinim program attracts participants from all sectors of Israeli society and all backgrounds, and includes religious and secular youths, new immigrants and native-born Israelis.
“We look for candidates who are open to new experiences, and have the ability to adapt to new circumstances,” says Mor Paz, noting that the volunteers will be spending a year away from their families, in a foreign country.
HILLI LAM visited the United States on a class trip when she was 13 years old and connected with the way that Jews in the US experience their Judaism.
“I come from a secular home,” she explains, “and the connection with religion in Israel is different than the United States. In the US, you are a Jew, however you decide to honor or respect your religion. There are many different streams of Judaism, they are all accepted, and it’s very open. I very much enjoy being a Jew here.”
Lam, whose stay was arranged in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, attends services on Shabbat, has learned the prayers and the blessings, and has been exposed to an aspect of Judaism that she had not experienced in Israel.
She notes that living in the Jewish community in Los Angeles has expanded her view of Judaism.
“I now see many possibilities that I didn’t see in Israel. There is a great deal of pluralism. It’s more open here, and there is much greater acceptance. On Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, you can see a Reform synagogue, an Orthodox synagogue, a Conservative synagogue, and a synagogue for the gay community, all on the same block. I never saw that in Israel.”
Lam volunteers in a large Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, and while she officially teaches fifth and seventh grade religious school students about Israel’s history, language, culture, music and Jewish tradition, she smiles and says, “I give classes to anyone from age two to 90.”
Perhaps even more valuable than the subjects that she teaches are the experiences she relates, telling her contemporaries about her life in Israel.
“I am here to connect to present Israel as I see it – that Israel is my home, and the best place to live, which is not how they always see it from the media.”
Lam says that living away from home has helped her mature and develop greater independence. She has taken on responsibilities in her role as a teacher in the religious school, and on Rosh Hashanah, spoke before thousands of people in the synagogue.
OR SCHRAIBER wanted to “do something out of the ordinary” before beginning his IDF service. He says his experiences in the ShinShinim program have taught him how to better interact with others and live in a different environment.
Schraiber, whose stay in Denver was arranged in cooperation with JEWISHcolorado, volunteers in a Reform synagogue and a Conservative synagogue, teaching Sunday school students about Israel. He also participates in the Jewish Student Connection program, which is held at three Denver public high schools during the week, providing Israel-related activities for Jewish students. Like Lam, Schraiber, who comes from a secular background, appreciates the different streams of Judaism in the US. He notes the differences between Jewish practice in Israel and in the United States.
“For Jews in the US, Judaism is not something that one takes for granted. In Israel, I can go the synagogue once a year, if at all, and not attending doesn’t make me feel less Jewish than anyone else. In the Diaspora, if you don’t go, or don’t do something to work on the Jewish part of your life, it will be missed.”
Despite the fact that Moshav Timorim, Schraiber’s home on the coastal plain, has been in the path of rocket fire from Gaza, he says it is important that Jews in the United States understand the amazing things about Israel – “the culture, the food, the great people and the great places” – rather than dwell on the negative items that are often featured in the American media.
Participants in the ShinShinim program live with families in the Jewish community where they are based, living with one host for three months before moving to another host home. Mor Paz of The Jewish Agency says the closeness creates a positive influence within their communities.
“They eat with their hosts, they go on vacation with them – it creates a connection between their families in Israel and the families in the United States. These connections can last for many years.”
Frequently, host families from the United States will fly to Israel for their former guests’ IDF course completion ceremonies, and ShinShinim graduates may travel to the US to celebrate family events of their adopted families. She adds that some hosts, who were not very involved with the Jewish community, became more connected to the Jewish community after hosting the ShinShinim participants.
Lam says that her job volunteering at the synagogue and religious school is time-consuming but worthwhile.
“I give a lot, but I get a lot back in return,” she says.
Her job does not end at the end of the day, but continues when she goes to her host home.
“The family wants the ‘added value’ of Israel as part of hosting, whether it is preparing Israeli food, or playing card games in Hebrew, watching an Israeli movie, or inserting some Hebrew words into the conversation. It is an amazing experience, and the families are very warm and accepting.”
Mor Paz says the success of the ShinShinim program thus far will lead to an expansion of the program to 500 participants.
“The message of the program,” she says, “is maintaining the connection between Israel and the Diaspora on a personal level, via our shlichim [emissaries].” She adds, “ShinShinim come back with a greater understanding of being Jewish in the world today. Frequently they say, ‘I left as an Israeli, but returned as a Jew.’”
THE SHINSHINIM are part of a larger yearly Jewish Agency delegation of 2,000 emissaries of different ages and backgrounds who work around the world at summer camps, university campuses, youth movements, synagogues, JCCs and Federations.
In mid-November, more than 350 of them, including the ShinShinim group, gathered in Stamford, Connecticut, for a four-day training conference organized by the Jewish Agency’s Shlichut Institute, which provided them with additional tools for strengthening the relationship between world Jewry and Israel. The North American conference took place a week after a similar conference in Brazil for Jewish Agency shlichim in South America. Similar conferences will be held in Europe, Australia and South Africa for emissaries serving in those regions.
Speaking at the North American conference, Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog summed up the positive effects of The Jewish Agency’s program.
“The thousands of Jewish Agency shlichim serving in communities around the world create a living bridge between global Jewry and Israel. They bring Israel directly into the homes and hearts of hundreds of thousands of people – children, teens, families. And when they return home to Israel, they continue to build this two-way bridge, bringing the voice of world Jewry to Israeli society.”
The ShinShinim are the youngest – and among the sturdiest – parts of this bridge, maintaining the connection between Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora.
This article was written in cooperation with The Jewish Agency for Israel.