On Jan. 10, Omer Erez walked through our front door, and our family’s lives got better.
Omer is a Rishon, one of the seven extraordinary Israelis brought to our region by Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ to serve as young emissaries during the year between high school and their service in the Israel Defense Forces. They work in day schools, synagogue schools, JCCs, and other places to expose young people and adults to contemporary Israeli life.
The tone with Omer was set from the beginning. Whatever needs doing, he always says, “How can I help?” Ask how he’s doing, and he always says, “Great!” And he means it.
It’s not just an infusion of upbeat, positive energy Omer has brought into our home and family. It’s also fascinating conversation, teaching language skills (though his English is miles beyond our paltry Hebrew), learning each other’s cultures and histories, talking politics, and just hanging out together and making fun of one another. Mainly, he’s just great company and great fun.
Omer has been a fabulous friend and role model to our son, Caleb, who is 15. And our daughter Isabel, 19, has loved spending time with him when she comes home from college.
We were invited to the first seder at Omer’s aunt and uncle’s place in Connecticut. Gathered around the table were about 30 Israelis, including Omer’s younger brother (his older brother is a member of Israel’s Shayetet 13 — equivalent to the U.S. Navy SEALs — and could not get away), his parents, grandmother, and Americans and Israeli-Americans from across the States. It was a privilege to be invited, and our halting Haggadah Hebrew elicited praise as flattering as it was unwarranted. We left with multiple invitations and plans to meet again, in both New York and Tel Aviv.
Hosting a Rishon is a great opportunity to get closer to Israel and develop life-long relationships while making an important contribution to our local Jewish community. And it could not be easier. There are just two requirements: Open your home and family to someone for four or five months (September to January or January to June, after which they go to summer camps), and feed them (Omer, a healthy 18-year-old, puts this one to the test). The federation provides cars, so there are no transportation responsibilities. And the federation has a strong infrastructure of support if it should be needed.
We have been lucky enough to have had the entire gaggle of this year’s Rishonim gather in our home several times. (We’re charming, to be sure, but it may have had something to do with the movie screen and hot tub.) They’re a remarkable group of young people: poised, thoughtful, engaging, optimistic, funny, and smart as a whip. It was particularly fun screening the film version of “The Band’s Visit” for them and having several of them improve upon the English subtitles, translating both the Hebrew and Arabic dialogue. That they’re an all-star group is no surprise; they pass through an exceedingly rigorous application process. We’d have been honored to host any of them.
Next year there will be nine Rishonim, so 18 host families are needed. People should be beating down federation’s doors seeking the honor, but instead recruitment is an annual challenge. If we could, we’d host over and over, but in order to spread the opportunity and experience, one may serve as host only once every five years.
Which presents a golden opportunity for families throughout the community. While not an absolute rule, the experience is probably best suited to families with youngsters in the house. To express interest or learn more, contact Anya Bitansky, federation’s Global Connections associate, at 973-929-3047 or ABitansky@jfedgmw.org.
Give it a try — trust us, you’ll be so glad you did.
Phoebe Farber and Craig Levine live in Montclair with their children, Isabel and Caleb. They are members of Bnai Keshet. Phoebe is a therapist and playwright. Craig is an attorney and alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program.