Aiming to deepen the community’s connection to Israel, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh is helping to bring more young Israeli emissaries here. By doubling the number of participants in Pittsburgh’s shinshinim program to four, there’s a better chance for people to “build more meaningful relationships,” Federation staffer Risa Kelemer said.
Shinshinim, which is a pluralized amalgamation of the Hebrew words shnat sherut (year of service), is a program started in 2018 and operated in partnership between the Federation and the Jewish Agency.
Amit Haizler and Shahaf Balasiano served as Pittsburgh’s shinshinim during the past year. The duo routinely worked in area schools, synagogues and with youth groups.
Avi Baran Munro, Community Day School’s head of school, praised Haizler and Balasiano’s abilities to boost the vibrancy of “campus life,” saying they brought an “authentic and enriching Israel experience to our students and families through creative educational programming, challenging discussions and relationship-building.”
Rabbi Barbara Symons of Temple David agreed. She said the Monroeville-based congregation wholeheartedly supports the shinshinim program and that the Israeli emissaries had a positive impact on the congregation’s religious school students.
After learning that Temple David was engaging in a yearlong effort to promote knowledge of Israel, Haizler worked with teachers to create and shape interactive programming. At one point, he asked students to write personal notes that would be placed in the Kotel. Later, while visiting the Jewish state, Haizler filmed himself placing the students’ messages in the Western Wall.
“That was above and beyond,” Symons said.
Actions like these help people see Israel and Israelis in new ways, Kelemer said.
“The way that the younger generation is in tune about Israel is often from the media and American social media,” and younger people “don’t necessarily have a deep understanding, or
connection, or personal experience,” she said. “The shinshinim program helps them meet an Israeli, build an authentic relationship with an Israeli and understand that these are real people who are there, and that Israel is not an abstract idea.”
Munro also touted the shinshinim’s ability to personalize and convey large concepts, saying, “Our students especially respond to the youthful energy and perspective of the shinshinim, building real and lasting connections with these teen ambassadors and with modern Israel.”
A unique aspect of the shinshinim program is that it creates relationships that aren’t one-sided, Symons explained.
Whenever Haizler came to the school, “we always gave him bags of Bamba,” she said. “It was a taste of home, and he loved it every time.”
The shinshinim are teenagers and, for many, this is their first extended time away from family and friends. Kelemer hopes when the newest crop of young emissaries arrives on Aug. 9, the community will embrace them and foster a “bilateral” engagement.
“Our goal is people-to-people relationships — that’s the ultimate connection,” she said. “We can show them our home and what our community looks like, and they can show us what their home and community looks like.”
As opposed to simply welcoming someone and asking about their culture, this model enables the possibility of greater understanding, Kelemer continued. Pittsburghers can demonstrate the “strength” of one American Jewish community and, in turn, the young emissaries can “bring our sense of community back to Israel as well.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.