Last week The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey (JFNNJ) welcomed a delegation of 13 Israeli students from its sister city in Nahariya. The Center for Israel Engagement, sponsored by JFNNJ, connects communities in Israel with Jewish communities across America. Northern New Jersey is partnered with Nahariya, a northern seaside city close to the Lebanese border. Throughout the year, several delegations from the Young Leadership of the Jewish Federation go back and forth, forging new relationships and experiencing life as their sisters and brothers know it. This initiative is supported by the Jewish Federation in the hope of maintaining its viability and fostering a deep connection between American teens and their Israeli counterparts.
The students on this delegation were selected based on their exceptional abilities in school, their leadership skills and their fluency in English. Throughout the year, the American twin class at BCHSJS (Bergen County High School for Jewish Studies) Skypes with the class in Nahariya to develop a connection. One objective when a delegation visits is to introduce them to American students in various schools. The Israeli students on this delegation spent a morning at The Frisch School, where they actually conducted classes for Frisch students focusing on life in Israel, specifically humanitarianism. “We want to show the Frisch students the real faces of Israel, not what is represented by the media,” said visiting student Yael Ben Yair. “We want to bond with them as we have many similarities.”
Frisch students welcomed the delegation with warmth and acceptance, sincerely excited to make new friends. All of the students took an immediate liking to one another. “Even though we live in different countries, we have many things in common,” said Chana Oelbaum. The Israeli students recognized how significant Israel is among the students of Frisch and were very impressed to learn how well they speak Hebrew. “It is nice to see the importance of Israel in this community,” articulated Noa Dan. The same sentiments were expressed by the Frisch students. “It was a fun experience to interact with Israeli students around our age. It was interesting to see how different yet similar we are to one another,” commented Yoni Kirsch of Teaneck.
“This Young Leadership delegation enables local teens to meet and create relationships with their peers from Israel. It’s special to see the teens keeping in touch following the visit, especially as the Israelis begin their military service and the Americans begin college. They discover their commonalities as one Jewish people and learn about the reality of their differences, living in two different countries. We believe it is important for northern New Jersey teens to learn about the safety and security of Israel and of their friends there,” said Ethan Behling, Interim Director for The Center for Israel Engagement.
Delegations primarily comprise high school students, but occasionally others go, including a group of first responders who travelled to Nahariya to learn about security issues in Israel and how it relates to life here. Captain Tim Torrell, who was a participant on a recent delegation, invited the visiting students to the Englewood Police station where he explained the security challenges faced here in New Jersey and across America.
The delegation participated in various chesed opportunities. The teens spent a day at The Center for Food Action in Saddlebrook, New Jersey, where they packed 960 food bags for kids who rely on these care packages at school. They also spent time at the Teaneck headquarters of Jewish Family and Children’s Services, where they created paintings and puppets to be used in the children’s therapy room. A highlight of the trip was a visit to New York City along with the American twin class where they had the honor of meeting Ambassador Danny Danon, who guided them through a tour of the United Nations. They also visited Stand With Us, where the issue of BDS across America was discussed.
The students were hosted by local families who have teens the same age. In the past, this too has created lasting friendships. Often American students who travel to Israel for a gap year will reach out to the Israeli students who they previously hosted. Teaneck residents Andrea and Larry Portal had the pleasure of hosting two Israeli boys, Naveh and Aviv. “It was a wonderful experience to host these boys. They enjoyed eating cholent for the first time and really bonded with our son Ari who is a senior at Frisch,” commented Andrea Portal. “We all became great friends and have an invitation to visit them in Nahariya anytime,” she added.
Marcel Etach, a chaperone on this trip, was touched by the level of hospitality and kindness extended to the group. “The local Jewish community is very accepting and dedicated to Judaism. It appears more difficult to be Jewish here than in Israel, yet the community is very committed to Jewish identity and values,” expressed Etach. Ravit Steinmetz, the partnership coordinator for the young leadership group in Nahariya, reinforced this point, noting that they are always treated with such warmth and thoughtfulness. “The students enjoy the interaction with the American teens and the main goal of the partnership is to make new friends,” explained Steinmetz.
Martha Cohen, immediate past chair of Partnership2Gether at the JFNNJ and lay leader, explained that a major goal of the Jewish federation is that Americans understand the importance of Israel. “It is important that our children in America know their Israeli counterparts and equally imperative to expose non-Jews to the lives of teens in Israel,” articulated Cohen. These delegations try to visit public schools where they explain that Israel’s true mission is to help anyone in need. They also impart that Israel is an accessible and welcoming place where one can succeed regardless of your background.
“This week was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I have made so many friendships through this program and met so many inspiring people. I truly believe that there is a strong connection amongst the Jewish people, even if we live oceans apart. I think that we can all learn so much from each other, and it is so important to foster a connection between America and Israel,” said Lauren Zoneraich, 16, a student at Bergen County Academies.
The experience is eye opening for both the Israeli students and the American students. Both groups were so genuinely welcoming and inspired one another about life where they respectively live. They collectively felt that while they are separated by large bodies of water and some aspects of their lives are distinctively different, there is a commonality among them that is unifying. “Youth is youth,” said Chana Oelbaum. Regardless of where they reside, their interests and hobbies are parallel to one another.
By Andrea Nissel