It’s a sunny, breezy, blue-sky day in Baltimore, and eight boisterous teens are chatting and laughing on the green expanse of lawn outside of the Park Heights JCC. Four young women and four young men — they could be any group of Baltimore teens — dressed casually and comfortably in jeans and summer shirts and jackets.
But don’t be fooled; these are not any teens. This group has been busy since arriving in Baltimore from Israel in August as part of the Macks Center for Jewish Education’s Shinshinim program, in partnership with The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).
The eight, all 18- and 19-year-olds, applied to spend a post-high-school gap-year, before their military service, as Israeli ambassadors living with host families and working with close to three dozen pre-schools, day schools, religious schools, synagogues, public schools, senior communities, JCCs and other entities, such as the Elijah Cummings Youth Program (ECYP) or as camp counselors at Capital Camps.
For 10 months they have been energetically delivering Israeli culture to, and making long-lasting connections with, Baltimore’s Jewish community — up close and personal. All that, and they don’t even look tired.
So, who are they?
Eighteen-year-old Yael Israeli grew up near Jerusalem in Tsur Hadasa and studied art and Arabic in high school.
“I’ll go to the army and I’ll serve in the Arabic section, in intelligence,” she said. “It’s very important to learn Arabic in Israel, when you live with Arabs and need to understand things.”
Describing herself as a “very curious girl,” Yael said when she heard about the opportunity to be a shinshin, she was eager to learn “close-up how people in Jewish communities in the world live their lives.” She also wanted to “get out from the bubble of Israel.”
Yael took an immediate liking to Baltimore’s Jewish community, which she describes as “amazing.”
“From the first moment, I felt like this is my family here and they accepted me like I am their daughter and everybody talked with me all the time,” she said. “I go to Beth Tfiloh. I work there and also at shul. I really feel part of the community.”
A few days later, donning a headband with Israeli flags sticking out like blue-and-white antlers, Yael could be found dancing and clapping with a group of youngsters, at BT’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration.
She fit right in.
While Yael and her seven colleagues in the 2018-2019 program are busy with the dozens of places where they work to spread that Israel love, the CJE’s Shinshinim program wasn’t always so flush with ambassadors. In fact, this is the first year Baltimore has had more than two shinshinim.
For this, its 10th year, the program was expanded exponentially because the demand was so high, according to CJE’s Shinshinim Hub director Smadar Haika-Fox.
“This is the first year having eight shinshinim together, so as you can imagine it’s a lot of logistics,” she said. “There is a lot of demand here from a lot of institutions to have shinshinim come and talk about Israel, or teach about the holidays and interact with the kids. They’re young adults and they’re connecting much easier to kids, to create a bridge between the Israel community and the community here.”
After institutions have signed up and made their needs known, the shinshinim are scheduled for regular visits to religious schools or day schools such as Temple Oheb Shalom, Ohr Chadash Academy, Krieger Schecter, or Beth Tfiloh. They may work with the Maccabi Games at the JCC, or connect with seniors at Weinberg Village.
At Temple Oheb Shalom, religious school director Aviva Janus said shinshin Yonatan Kantarowicz, 19, turned out to be the perfect fit.
“I wanted somebody warm and engaging and personable, friendly and outgoing. He’s all those things and more,” Janus said, of the teen who spoke to her mostly in Hebrew when he arrived. “His English has improved tremendously during the course of the year.”
In his supportive role at the school (the shinshinim are not teachers) Yonatan has worked in every classroom, Janus said, bringing “real life and energy and positivity,” building relationships with all of the teachers and students.
“He’s a living, breathing example, of Israeli culture,” she said. “Kind of a walking ambassador of Israel. He’s able to bring the excitement of Israel to our school and our community.”
Through games, hands-on activities and lessons he’s planned, Yonatan is able to jump in and work with students around any theme.
“Many of my students have not had the opportunity to go to Israel and even their parents have not,” Janus said. “But it’s a way to bring Israel to my students, to my families. If we can’t go to Israel, let’s have Israel come to us.”
But for those students who do have a chance to visit Israel, they will have a connection — Yonatan.
Growing up in Shoham, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Yonatan was fascinated with science, studying physics and chemistry in high school, which he hopes to pursue after military service.
“I was curious in science, especially space, or electricity or renewable energy,” he said.
While in high school, Yonatan was part of two Israeli Scout programs connecting American teens to Israeli teens, which drew him to his work as a shinshin.
“That connection between Jews in the Diaspora, especially Americans, to me was always strong, something I was really interested about,” he said. “And while I was here, between my junior to senior year, I saw some shinshinim around America and was really enthusiastic for it.”
A basketball, volleyball and soccer player, Yonatan uses sports to connect with children and teens. “I think it makes a better bond between me and them,” he said.
In the community
At last week’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration at Beth Tfiloh, Shani Kalmanovich danced along to a music video with Yonatan and Yael and a happy group of toddlers and teens. Also joining in the event were shinshinim Matania Grinvald and Bar Ling.
BT’s celebration of Israel Independence Day brought scores of youngsters and adults from the community to the shul’s large complex to experience Israeli dancing, film, music, history, food and fun.
Dressed casually in skinny jeans and sneakers, Shani bounced along to the music with 13-year-old Maytal Fleisher, who just the day before had met shinshin Bar Ling, who her family was hosting.
It was easy to see their joy and how deeply the eight shinshinim have become a part of the community.
Shani, 19, said she has seen her impact and is especially pleased to see very young children responding.
“When I teach them something and they remember, it’s very exciting,” she said. “They’re five, or four years old, and they actually remember that I told them that in Jerusalem there is the Kotel, or something.”
Shani grew up in Sde Yoav, a kibbutz in south-central Israel near Ashkelon, Baltimore’s sister city.
In high school, her majors were psychology and physical education. She likes to run, bike and take long walks. “It makes me feel stronger,” she said. “It helps me to relax, to forget all what happened to me in this day, this week. Just to refresh.”
During the summer of 2017, Shani attended a summer camp in Pennsylvania through the Jewish Agency where she had an “amazing experience.”
“I learned so much. I have so much fun,” she said. “And then I decided that I want to do it for longer. I tried to get accepted to this program; and after a long wait, I made it!
Just steps from the line-dancing, Matania Grinvald, 18, was all smiles for a photo with Bar Ling and BT’s resident Israel Shaliach, Dani Steiner and his wife, BT teacher Ayelet Steiner.
As a teen in Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem, Matania studied the art of cinema and civics in high school. “The art of cinema was really meaningful,” he said.
While participating in the Diller Teen Fellows leadership program, Matania visited South Africa, where he met shinshinim.
“I saw how deep the impact they have and how big a difference it can make, so I decided to try this out,” he said. “It happened to be in Baltimore, and I am really happy about it. You meet a lot of people that you know you’re going to be in touch with for the rest of your life.”
Just a few steps from the line-dancing action, BT’s director of education Zipora Schorr chatted with a photographer, then headed off to check on activities around the building. She took a moment in a hallway to extol the virtues of the shinshinim (both Yael and Yonatan are regulars BT) who have been working with students and making a difference at the school.
“They are teaching students a deep love and respect for Israel, which can only be learned from someone who authentically lives and breathes Israel,” she said.
Just a few minutes after having worked out on the dance floor, shinshin Bar Ling and Maytal Fleisher were on the other side of the BT complex, inspecting the Yom Ha’atzmaut birthday cake in the packed auditorium.
Only the day before, Bar had moved to the Fleisher home to live with his new host family. During the course of the year, the shinshinim stay three to four months at each home, which means each teen experiences three or four host families.
The 19-year-old, from the north of Israel in Nesher, close to Haifa, had a lot of interests in high school, including physics, computer science, diplomacy, international communications and English translation.
With Nesher having a partnership with Broward County, Florida, Bar was part of a delegation to Florida and took part in the Maccabi games there.
“I have family that also lives in the same place, so I wanted to experience how it would feel to be Jewish outside of Israel, the Diaspora,” he said. “I wanted to explore more about it.”
During his time in Baltimore he has enjoyed building relationships with his host families.
“It’s such an amazing experience,” he said. “The impact you make on a family, and how you change their ideas and you explain to them about Israel and the way that you experience each other, that’s my best part until now.”
Maytal certainly agrees. The 13-year-old BT student was excited about meeting Bar and the two seemed like longtime friends, even though they’d just met.
“He’s cool. He’s so nice. He’s teaching me how to speak Hebrew,” Maytal said, adding that when hosting a shinshin “you learn how to be more friendly to others.”
Bar and Shani have been working with the JCC, where Melissa Seltzer, senior director of J Kids Baltimore, said the shinshinim have inspired and impressed staffers with lessons and exhibits about Israel and the Jewish holidays and their ability to build relationships with the children.
“They have helped the children to feel heard, appreciated and cared for,” Seltzer said. “They have developed a positive association for our Jewish and non-Jewish children — of who an Israeli is and what Israel stands for— something that will impact the children far beyond their years as a J kid.”
Meanwhile, at Chizuk Amuno’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration, shinshinim Efrat Menasheof and Tomer Sharon were putting children through their paces, wearing off some of their youthful, boundless energy on an obstacle course the two had constructed for the event.
Efrat and Tomer clapped and laughed and urged the children through the course that included running, jumping and tumbling.
Eighteen-year-old Efrat, of Ashkelon, attended art school and majored in music, physics and Arabic.
“I really like music. I played piano for 12 years. We learned about the history of music, but also about harmony,” she said. “And I really love math; it’s really connected.” She would like to pursue both, but isn’t sure in what way.
Two years ago, Efrat, like Matania, was a Diller Teen Fellow and visited Baltimore. The program ignited her interest in exploring her Jewish identity.
“Before Diller, I never thought about what it means to be a Jew, I never thought about Judaism,” she said. “Diller was a door that opened for that world of Judaism. It was really important for me to get to know how it is to be a Jewish person, not in Israel.”
“And sometimes, Israel is misunderstood,” she added. “But if you’re here and you show people that Israelis are not monsters and we’re really kind and nice, you make Israel from just an idea to something real. The connections between the Jewish people that are not in Israel and the Jewish people in Israel, are really important for the existence of both.”
It’s not surprising then, that for Efrat getting up-close and personal with American culture has been the best part of her experience.
“You go into their daily life and you see what the American culture is and you see how the kids in school learn about Judaism —way more than I learned about Judaism — and everything is more meaningful,” she said. “They think about their Jewish life every day. In Israel, I didn’t think about my Jewish life. I didn’t think about me as a Jew. Learning those things, and having those connections with people is my highlight. And also exploring my Jewish identity.”
Tomer, 19, is from Ma’Ale Hahamisha, a kibbutz near Jerusalem. He studied computer science and physical education, including the psychology and anatomy of sports, in high school. Before coming to Baltimore, Tomer had no experience with Diaspora Jews, but wanted to learn.
“I really believe in personal connection,” he said. “So the main reason I came here is to create a connection, a new personal connection, and to build a bridge between the Jewish people in Israel and the Jewish people in the Diaspora.”
So far, his favorite part of this year was the moment he understood his effect on the Baltimore Jewish community.
“It can be host families, it can be students at school, it can be even friends that I meet,” he said. “When I understood that I have a huge impact, it just motivated me to do more, and to be part of the community. It makes me feel that now, I’m a Shaliach. I’m an Israeli ambassador here in the Jewish community of Baltimore.”
“But when I go back to Israel, I will be a Shaliach of the Jewish community of Baltimore in Israel,” he added. “That’s something that I will take with me for the whole life. This year is so meaningful. It’s really shaped me and helped me understand my Jewish character and my Jewish identity.”
Making an impact
Nathan Altshuler is mid-Atlantic high school coordinator at StandWithUs, an international nonprofit Israel education organization. He sees the eight shinshinim as an invaluable resource for making connections and strengthening the community.
“The Baltimore Jewish community is large, diverse and unique. There’s a huge need to have a connection of teenagers in America, Jewish American teenagers, and Israeli teenagers,” he said. “And the fact that we have more in our community, makes our community stronger, makes our teens learn more, and gives us an opportunity to really include all the diverse members of this community. This way they can be in every synagogue, every school. From what I’ve seen in the short time that I’ve known them is that they’re doing an incredible job.”
Eighteen-year-old Shira Avital majored in Arabic, physics and Talmud in high school and was a counselor in Israel Scouts and other youth movements. She really enjoys learning Talmud and is continuing those studies, while considering going into speech therapy.
She has always wanted to be a shinshin.
“I just always knew that I wanted to be, at some point of my life, a shlichah of the Jewish Agency,” she said. “I kind of bumped into the program and found that it is a really good time in life to do it now. And that it can be a very nice experience.”
But beyond her everyday experience, she knows that what she is doing right now will resonate for years through the many lives that she and the other shinshinim have touched.
“It’s not just that you work with the kids. This kid goes home, and his mother asks him, ‘How was your day?’ And then he speaks, ‘Oh, I had such a fun activity with the shinshinim, and we learned about that, and that. So, you teach one person and you see how it becomes more and more and more,” she said. “Or, we put up a bulletin board and one week after, I get feedback from a parent who says, ‘I saw your board and I learned new things.’ Or, we presented something at an assembly for middle schoolers, and the principal comes to me one week after and says, ‘You really made me interested in that topic.’”
“That’s the best part,” she added. “To see that your effect is bigger than what you may see on a daily basis.”