When Israeli teen Tair Gelerenter told her friends that she was moving to Pittsburgh, they asked why she wasn’t going to America.
“They said, ‘How come you’re going to Germany?’” Gelerenter, 19, told the Chronicle.
Although the Petach Tikvah resident corrected her friends as to Pittsburgh’s whereabouts, they still wondered, “Why not Miami?” she said with a laugh.
Weeks ago, Gelerenter and fellow Israeli teen Ayelet Setbon arrived in Squirrel Hill for a year of volunteering. They set up their apartment, shopped and quickly adapted to a lifestyle that requires both avoiding potholes while driving and carefully ambling over cobblestones en route to teaching at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh.
Before last month, neither Gelerenter nor Setbon had been to Pittsburgh; even so, both wanted to spend a year here instead of compulsory military service.
The teens, according to the Israeli government, are among approximately 2,100 religious women, aged 17-24, who annually complete Bat-Ami through National Volunteer Service.
Called “Bnot Sherut,” participants spend between one and two years in “educational, health, social services, security, community services, and environmental preservation frameworks that meet a wide swath of social needs in Israel and the diaspora.”
Last year, Setbon, 19, volunteered in Sha’alvim, a religious kibbutz in central Israel. Gelerenter volunteered in nearby Modi’in, a city populated by many American expats.
“I heard stories about past Bnot Sherut, and the influence they had, and I was touched by it,” Gelerenter said.
There were other (warmer) locations available, but after Pittsburgh was proposed, Setbon knew it was “perfect,” she said. “It’s a small community where we can have a lot of influence.”
In recent weeks, the teens have met people at Shabbat services, while exercising at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and simply by walking through Squirrel Hill. Most of their interactions, however, have occurred inside classrooms at Hillel Academy. Through regular involvement with students, the teens add texture to discussions about Israel and its culture.
Rabbi Sam Weinberg, Hillel Academy’s principal, said the Bnot Sherut serve a critical function within the Jewish day school.
“Israel gets a lot of negativity in the news,” he said. “Our students hear this. They also hear reports about terror attacks and calls to pray for Israeli soldiers. What the Bnot Sherut do is allow our students to see Israel through a more positive outlook.”
The engagements foster “real relationships,” he continued. “After graduating, many of our seniors spend a year in Israel, so having an entire group of past Bnot Sherut gives our kids an extended family — people to go to for holidays, to visit or hang out with.”
Creating this network requires time and money.
Weinberg said that Hillel Academy provides the Bnot Sherut with an apartment, car and stipend for living expenses.
“We incorporated the costs into our budget, and it’s something that we have no thoughts of discontinuing,” he said. “We view this program as an important part of our mission and our identity.”
Gelerenter and Setbon appreciate the community’s support and are eager to strengthen Jewish peoplehood, they said.
Still, the teens’ arrival comes at a precarious moment in U.S.-Israeli relations.
During a meeting this week between President Joseph Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden reaffirmed the “unbreakable bond between the two countries” but expressed concern regarding “fundamental changes to Israel’s democratic system, absent the broadest possible consensus,” according to the White House.
For 37 weeks, hundreds of thousands of protestors have demonstrated in Tel Aviv, and across Israel, against the judicial overhaul proposed by Netanyahu’s government.
Following the Knesset’s July approval of an initial bill aimed at curbing Israeli Supreme Court powers, the Biden administration called the decision “unfortunate.”
Since arriving in the States, Gelerenter and Setbon have been asked about Israel’s government.
The teens said they’ve also been told about a growing detachment within their demographic.
Fifty-six percent of Americans aged 18-29 hold an unfavorable view of Israel, according to a 2022 Pew Research report.
“Things are going on in Israel, and I come from there, but I don’t feel the separation that everyone is talking about,” Setbon said.
Her comments align with a Pew finding that 89% of Israeli adults said relations between the U.S. and Israel are “good.”
Setbon said she and Gelerenter are not in Pittsburgh to explain diplomatic relations or government policies; instead, they’re here to create connections and strengthen bonds between Jews.
Progress has already been made, Gelerenter explained.
“We were greeted so nicely when we arrived, and that’s not a small thing,” she said.
“People keep inviting us for Shabbat meals, which is very kind. It’s actually unbelievable,”
Setbon said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m in a kibbutz, or a yishuv, where everyone is taking care of me and making sure I’m OK.”
The teens reiterated their gratitude to their new community.
“What I was told about Pittsburgh is that the people are special — that there’s everything … and not just one type of Jewish person,” Gelerenter said. “That’s what brought me to Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh is the best.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.