By Meghan Thompson
Earlier this year, the Macks Center for Jewish Education welcomed the 2020-21 class of Shinshinim to Baltimore.
Shinshinim stands for “shnat sherut,” which means “year of service.” Shinshinim are recent high school graduates from Israel who take a gap year before their national service to participate in the program. They travel to Jewish communities across the world, where they live for a year, in order to unify the global Jewish community and teach Jews about Israel.
This year’s Shinshinim in Baltimore are 18-year-olds Ofir Yasur, Noam Trock, Tamar Maor and Yam Agami. They arrived on Sept. 25 and went through two weeks of quarantine. During the year, they stay with a different host families.
In celebration of the Baltimore Shinshinim program’s bar mitzvah year (this is the 13th class), CJE is reuniting all past and present Shinshinim with their Baltimore host families via Zoom on Dec. 13, the fourth night of Chanukah.
“The Shinshinim program is so important for the relations between the international Jewish community, because we all need to be one big community who support each other,” Agami said.
“Israel is the home for all Jewish people,” she continued. “We want the Jews in the Diaspora to connect to Israel through our experiences. They will no longer hear the words Israel or [Israel Defense Forces] and think about it from a far point of view. They will see our faces and hopefully feel closer to Israel.”
Every year, Israeli 11th graders apply to the Shinshinim program. Over the course of a year, students are put through a rigorous interview process to determine their fitness for a year abroad and ability to teach others about Israel and the Israeli Jewish community.
The Baltimore Shinshinim program has been facilitated and staffed by CJE for the last 13 years. Three years ago, CJE became a Shinshinim hub, creating a more established relationship with the program, which meant that the number of Israeli emissaries sent to Baltimore could increase from two to eight. Due to visa challenges posed by COVID-19, only four Shinshinim were chosen for the 2020-21 class.
Smadar Haika-Fox, director of the Baltimore Shinshinim Hub, said the program is two-fold, in part as a way to teach the Baltimore Jewish community about Israel and its significance to their Jewish heritage while also allowing the Shinshinim to learn more about Jewish communities and culture in other parts of the world.
“By doing this, they bring the two communities together,” Haika-Fox said.
The Shinshinim will be teaching Baltimore Jews of all ages about Israel and its significance to Judaism, both virtually using Zoom and through in-person instruction. They will volunteer and work at different Jewish organizations, including Krieger Schechter Day School, Ohr Chadash Academy and the JCC of Greater Baltimore.
“This year is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Yasur said. “It can and will mature you and make you a lot more independent, and during it, you will experience many unique things from an extremely rare point of view.”
Zinaida Segal, the director of Global Peoplehood Education at CJE, said that the Shinshinim help expose the local Jewish community to Israel, while allowing Baltimore Jews to make connections with Israeli Jews.
“All Jews around the globe have a very different experience being Jewish,” Segal said. “This can be little things, like what dip you use for your latkes, to more complicated issues, like experiencing anti-Semitism or attitudes towards the Holocaust.
“For [the Shinshinim], Judaism is part of their everyday life, and they don’t have to make an effort to be Jewish,” Segal said.
For example, in Israel, schools and workplaces close for holidays like Yom Kippur, while many Jewish Americans have to miss work or school to observe Jewish holidays.
“When [the Shinshinim] come here, they see how it is not straightforward to be Jewish in a non-Jewish country,” Segal said.
“Every Jewish community has different experiences with everything,” Segal continued. “We feel that educating people about this and raising awareness about different faces and kinds of Judaism is super important to staying connected as a nation, culture and religion.”
Meghan Thompson is a freelance writer.