I write this article fighting the bleary-eyed late afternoon jet lag that I am struggling to shake four days after returning from Israel. My week-long trip with over 35 lay and professional leaders involved in Toronto’s Shinshinim program—a collaboration between the Jewish Agency for Israel, UJA Federation,and over 20 schools, synagogues, and youth movements in the city— was exciting, informative, exhilarating and exhausting, often all at the same time. We had the opportunity to experience Israel on election day, explore the diverse neighbourhoods of Tel Aviv, plant trees on the eve of Tu B’Shevat, and meet leaders from the Jewish Agency, including Director- General Alan Hoffmann and Chair Natan Sharansky. But most importantly,we had the privilege of meeting and interviewing some of the most talented and driven young Israelis who will be dedicating a year of service to the Toronto Jewish community.
I am delighted to report that Beth Tzedec and Robbins Hebrew Academy have selected two accomplished and talented young adults to serve as our shinshinim (young emissaries) for 2013-2014: Maya Schwartz and Barak Tal. They both have significant experience with youth programming and have served in many leadership roles in their communities. We look forward to formally welcoming Maya and Barak in August. Special thanks to Todd Beallor, Beth Tzedec’s Shinshinim lay leader, and Claire Sumerlus, RHA’s Head of School, for being excellent interview partners, as well as to Lianne Leboff and Adam Joseph for their commitment to the shinshinim program.
The experience of hosting a shinshin in your home is profound and life-changing. It provides you and your family a unique window into the lives of Israeli teens who care about the Jewish people around the world. These young Israelis become your own children, not only for the few months when they live under your roof, but often, for many years to come. It is this type of transformative experience that has maintained connections between host families and shinshinim of years past, and has been the catalyst for host families to become more involved in the program. We are fortunate that the Weisdorf-Levine family, whose experiences and interactions with the shinshinim program have been so impactful and transformative, have generously underwritten Beth Tzedec’s costs associated with this powerful program.
The primary purpose of the shinshinim program is to allow our community to engage with Israel in different ways. This experience is now a two-way street, a cultural exchange among the Jewish people. A major theme of my recent trip to Israel was Jewish Peoplehood, specifically the reality that Israeli and Diaspora Jews have a hard time understanding each other. For example, many Diaspora Jews struggle with the concept of the secular Israeli, and question why Israeli society often defers issues of religion to the ultra-Orthodox. Conversely, many Israelis are unaware of the amount of work that is required in the Diaspora to retain and grow one’s Jewish identity, and that Diaspora Jews make difficult and challenging choices on a regular basis when it comes to Jewish expression and observance.
In spite of our differences, we are approaching one of the most uniting evenings of the Jewish year—the Pesaẖ seder (or sedarim, for Diaspora Jews). Participating in a seder is one of the most regularly observed Jewish customs all over the world, including in Israel. We gather together as families and friends, and participate in a ritual that among other things proclaims our distinctiveness as the Jewish people, not as Israelis or Canadians. I always take great pride in moments of collective Jewish action; knowing that as I eat matzah for the first time, or bite a piece of maror, millions of other Jews around the world have already done so on the same day, or will be doing so within a few hours, is very powerful.
In addition to all of the eating that we do at the seder, we also open up our homes to guests. We invite those who need a place to eat to join us. We transform into the ultimate hosts, sharing our most elaborate meal of the year with those who are without a place. While this sentiment of hosting is built into the text of the Haggadah through the Ha Laẖma paragraph, such an attitude does not have to be limited to the seder night or nights.
Our new shinshinim, Maya and Barak, will need host families next year. If you are interested in learning more about the experience of being a host family, please contact Todd Beallor at firstname.lastname@example.org.