There are two new faces at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh. Israelis Halelle Gaon and Liad Raybi are completing their year of national service by working at the Jewish day school and with local youth through Bnei Akiva of Pittsburgh.
Though it’s been just a few weeks since the two teens arrived in western Pennsylvania, Gaon, 19, and Raybi, 19, said they’ve taken to the area — particularly Mt. Washington — and the people here.
Neither the landscape nor the residents are particularly surprising, though. As a lead-up to their travels, Gaon and Raybi heard that Pittsburgh is a beautiful and “warm community.” But having the chance to meet so many people and see parts of the city during the last several days confirmed that description, Raybi explained.
“Everyone is trying to be so helpful,” Gaon said.
Whether it’s escorting the teens to different places or delivering cookies and other welcome gifts to their apartment in Squirrel Hill, the community has shown tremendous kindness, Gaon added.
“We are very appreciative,” Raybi said.
While living in Pittsburgh has confirmed some of what they heard about the city before they arrived, there are also plenty of surprises, the teens said — like people’s commitment to punctuality.
“You’re on time here,” Gaon said.
Raybi agreed: “In Israel, if you say 9, you really mean 9:30.”
Another shocker, according to the teens, is food.
While vegetables in the States don’t seem to be as tasty as those in Israel, the fruit here is “amazing,” Raybi said.
Promptness and produce aside, the Israelis’ biggest epiphany about Pittsburgh may be the diversity of the religious practices of local Jewish residents.
“There are lots of kinds of families here,” Raybi said.
In Shaalvim, where both Gaon and Raybi grew up, “it’s all dati leumi (religious Zionist),” Gaon said.
Conversations with other Israelis who’d spent time here gave the teens some insight into Pittsburgh’s Jewish life, but actually observing the way many families interact is incredible, they said.
“It's fun to see all the kids together. It's very special. It wouldn’t work like this in Israel,” Gaon said. “There are so many streams of Jews, and everyone has their own school there.”
Since Hillel Academy began the school year on Sept. 6, Gaon and Raybi have worked with students of all ages. The Israelis described meaningful engagements and efforts to promote Israel within the building.
A bulletin board stretching across a hallway includes both Hebrew and English words describing the teens, their families and hobbies; Gaon and Raybi said they look forward to helping students and residents learn more about Israel as well as life in the Jewish state.
Whether by working on Yom Ha’Atzmaut-related activities with young leaders from the city’s Bnei Akiva youth group or introducing early childhood students to Israeli songs, Gaon and Raybi are excited to spend the year fulfilling the aims of Sherut Leumi — a program where participants provide national service instead of joining the Israel Defense Forces.
This is Gaon and Raybi’s second year in the program. Before coming to Pittsburgh, the former Sha’alvim residents spent a year aiding organizations in Israel. Gaon worked at Beit Issie Shapiro, a Ra’anana-based group that promotes inclusion while providing therapies and services for children and adults with disabilities. Raybi worked at Shalva, a Jerusalem-based organization that provides programming, therapy and training for people with disabilities and their families.
“Sherut Leumi is an awesome program,” Gaon said. “There are so many ways to benefit the state — with kids, with older people, in an office — you could do a ton of meaningful things.”
Neither Gaon nor Raybi is certain what they’ll do upon returning to Israel next year. Until then, however, they are looking forward to developing new connections in Pittsburgh while fulfilling their national duties from afar.
“We serve our country,” Gaon said. “Just in a different program.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.