Within a week of their arrival, five young teenage emissaries from Israel who have come to spend a year with the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ had already learned what big shoes they have to fill — and welcomed the challenge.
“All of a sudden, we are a ‘hot commodity’ and everyone is looking forward to meeting us and speaking Hebrew with us!” Shahar Sabag told NJ Jewish News soon after the arrival of the rishonim (roughly, the “first ones” in Hebrew).
And that, they acknowledge, is because their predecessors made such a great impression. “We hope we can be just as good as they were,” said Coral Levy.
This is the 10th year that the federation has sponsored rishonim. All 18 years old, they are high school graduates who have opted to postpone their army service for a year while they represent Israel in local day schools and synagogues, visit public and private high schools, and run programs for camps and youth groups.
With the merging of the Central and MetroWest federations in July, the group will serve their combined territories in Essex, Morris, Sussex, Union, and parts of Somerset counties.
Working with them through the federation’s Legow Family Israel Program Center is Rozi Ben Ami, 23, an emissary who has already finished her service and earned a college degree.
All were selected from a pool of hundreds who apply to the sponsoring organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel. All have gone through a long process of preparation, with classes both to brush up their Israeli know-how, and to prepare them for life in the United States.
The teens are hosted by local families. Daphna Yizrael, their supervisor, said the young Israelis form bonds that long outlast their one-year stay. The host families stay in touch, and often visit them in Israel.
For this new crew, the getting-acquainted process began with a few days spent with just two families — Jay and Wendy Sabin in Montclair and Eric and Sharon Gordon in West Orange. They were driven around the region, taken to New York City, to a Jets game, and to stores like Target and Party City.
They also were introduced to New Jersey roads and motorists. The federation provides each with a car — a luxury some haven’t had before. David Marder declared Jersey drivers very polite; Shahar wasn’t so sure, but he was eager to get behind the wheel himself.
Most of the group have been to the United States before and some specifically to New Jersey. Some came through youth programs, including the Diller Teen Fellows, which links American and Israeli high schoolers, and Tzofim, the Israeli Scouts.
“I think those experiences made us even more interested in coming back to the U.S.A. for a longer time,” Adi Ben Harosh said. Most have already had experience teaching other youngsters, as leaders in programs at school or in their home communities.
Marder’s parents are both immigrants to Israel, his mother an immigrant from Boston, his father from England. His family is Modern Orthodox, and being on programs like this with people from different backgrounds, he said, has made him “understand how much we have in common, that we’re all human beings.” He would like to foster that kind of friendship among different groups in Israel, and between Israelis and Americans.