Shai Tahan, 18, acknowledged that on first arriving in the United States, he had quite a bit of anxiety. Part of a delegation of 10 shlihim — emissaries from Israel — who traveled to New Jersey this summer, the Rosh Pina native has now had time to settle in and is actually “having fun” working with Jewish children.
The shlihim are brought to New Jersey by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ to add a taste of Israel to the local community. Seven of the 10, including Tahan, are rishonim (recent Israeli high school graduates who sign on for shlihut before their army service as a kind of gap year). They work with local youth in day schools, religious schools, synagogues, and community centers, and live with host families. The other three emissaries are older, usually in their mid-20s, have completed their army service and university studies, and are professional educators. They will live in the community for several years.
In addition to Tahan, the rishonim include Roni Belkin, Oz Attar, Gili Veltz, Coral Sasson, Noach Korin Gilady, and Stav Khoubian. The new shlihim are Michael Levi, Danielle Perlmutter, and Yosef Perlmutter. They join Moran Shevach, who has already completed the first year of her stay.
Tahan said his stint is “a lot of fun,” but a bit daunting. At first, he would ask himself “What I’m doing here?” and worried about the kinds of kids he would be interacting with. He had concerns about living with his host family. “I was super nervous,” he said. “How it’s going to be and how it’s going to work? How I’m going to get up in the morning? Will they make me breakfast? Will they not make me breakfast?”
He started sweating every time they went somewhere new.
But after a while, Tahan said, “I start to see that I’m having fun. I’m feeling this in each place and I’m enjoying to work and to meet the kids — and the happiness they bring to you and you bring to them.”
His life with his host family has settled into a comfortable rhythm, he said. “I can make breakfast. I can open the fridge. In my free time I can play with my ‘brother’ or watch TV. It’s home.”
In fact, he added, “I feel home in every place I’m going. Everyone is so welcoming. Now I feel part of the community.”
By mid-October, the emissaries were operating in a regular routine, working with students at area venues. They spoke with NJJN about their experiences so far; the following are edited excerpts from the conversation, held Oct. 10 at their headquarters in the federation offices on the Aidekman campus in Whippany, where they are led by community shaliah Moshe Levi.
On cultural differences:
Gilady, 17, of Arad was struck by some immediately obvious cultural differences. When he said everyone in the United States is “more polite,” he meant everyone — even the security guards at the Gottesman RTC Academy, the community day school in Randolph where he is posted. “The security guard waits for me to open my bag. In Israel, the security guard just takes your bag and looks around through it.”
Michael Levi (no relation to Moshe) of Gilon, 22, and Khoubian of Rishon Letzion, 18, were both surprised at the formality of dress, especially in synagogues. Levi said, “During Rosh Hashana everyone wore jackets and suits and ties. In Israel, you get married with this manner of clothing.” Khoubian added, “I was so underdressed! All the women and girls were wearing dresses and high heels.” Levi pointed out that “in Israel, jeans are perceived as smart.” (Yes, Khoubian wore jeans.)
On the synagogue experience:
Some of the newcomers were surprised at the many flavors of observance readily available in the Greater MetroWest area. Levi did not expect to enjoy services, but, attending Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, he said, “The prayer went in a very musical way and the rabbi had some drasha which was amazing, and everyone sang together. It was quite an experience.”
Attar, 18, of Rishon Letzion, said, “To see that in the community there is a place for everyone, no matter if you are Reform or Orthodox. Coming from Israel, basically the majority are Orthodox and nobody knows more than that, and here there is a place to everyone. Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist. I think that’s very important and it’s amazing.” He acknowledged that this is not his first time interacting with this community — as a member of the federation-sponsored Diller Teen Fellowship program, he was here twice before and has “seen a wider picture.”
On Shimon Peres:
Experiencing the death of Israeli statesman Shimon Peres from afar brought a singular sense of dislocation to most of the shlihim. Khoubian said, “It was hard being here when it happened and not in Israel. There is a price for being here. But that is what we came for.” Each offered a presentation on Peres to a local group and found a way to speak about their experiences with students. Belkin, 18, of Ra’anana, said, “The kids were asking so many questions. They wanted to feel what we were feeling.” While for her it was “the saddest day,” she added, “It was an opportunity to share with the community here our Israeli identity, and the fact that they wanted to understand was very warming to me.”
Yosef Perlmutter, 24, of Jerusalem, however, did not feel as distanced as the others. “It was so strong worldwide. The news of his passing was everywhere. So I didn’t feel the distance from Israel was so significant. I feel the distance more with things I can’t hear about while I’m here,” he said.
They were in agreement about one thing, Belkin added: “All of us said our heart is broken.”
On the U.S. election:
The rishonim found themselves learning quite a bit by watching the debates with their host families. Attar said, “They are so alive. The families really care. They get mad or happy if [one of the candidates] does something right. You are part of it, not just looking in from the outside.” While Khoubian said she’s learned a lot, particularly about the differences between Israeli and American politics, the nuances are still elusive for Tahan. He took note of the debates, contrasting them with the situation in Israel, where, he said, “You can’t do a debate with 30 parties.” He admitted he’s still befuddled on many aspects of American government. “What is a senator? How do they count the votes?”
On being in the Diaspora:
Veltz, 17, from Rishon Letzion, had a realization about what it means to be Jewish in the Diaspora after she noticed a box of kosher salt in the pantry. “I asked my host mother why she need kosher salt. In Israel, all things are kosher. I don’t think about it. Here, being Jewish is something different. People put their menora on the windowsill for everyone to see. It’s not taken for granted. “
On Israel advocacy:
Veltz sees herself playing an important role in the conversation about Israel’s side in the boycott, divestment, and sanctions controversy and in advocating for Israel in general. “I bring my personal point of view,” she said. “I’m not so big. I’m not so dangerous. I am not so threatening. It’s just me. I am Gili. And that’s my role here. Every day that passes, I find ways of bringing more of myself into my job, to show my personality in a way that relates to the kids.”
On how much there is to learn:
Levi has already begun to internalize a classic teacher’s lesson. He said, “At the beginning when I came I thought I will teach a lot. But I see myself learning a lot. Every congregation I go to and every organization, I think it’s a very teachful experience, something I can learn a lot from.”