Not even two days after arriving in Pittsburgh, four teenage Israeli emissaries were stopped on a Squirrel Hill street and asked about judicial reform in the Jewish state.
The new Shinshinim told the Chronicle they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is a big part of our job,” Noam Rotshtain, 18, said. “It could be pretty tough sometimes, but I think this is a part of our mission.”
Rotshtain, Roni Bartov, Lidor Lubman and Maya Shafir — all recent high school graduates —deferred military service to spend a year in Pittsburgh bolstering Jewish peoplehood.
The teens are passionate, yet not preachy, when articulating their responsibility to discuss Israel, its government and culture.
“We can talk about anything,” Shafir, 18, said. “We are very direct.”
At the same time, though, “We can really listen,” Bartov, 18, said. “It’s not just that we’re coming to explain something to you. You can explain something to us, and we can learn from it.”
The young adults — who are from Karmiel and the Misgav region — arrived in Pittsburgh on Aug. 11. Support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh will enable the teens to work with children and the wider community at spaces including the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, Community Day School and the Joint Jewish Education Program.
Pittsburgh has welcomed Israeli emissaries for decades, but the new Shinshinim’s arrival comes at a strenuous point in the Israeli/Diaspora relationship. Even before the White House called the Knesset’s July 24 vote to weaken Israel’s Supreme Court “unfortunate,” young Americans signaled growing displeasure with the Jewish state.
Fifty-six percent of Americans aged 18-29 hold an “unfavorable opinion of Israel,” according to the Pew Research Center.
When asked by the American Jewish Committee, “How much responsibility, if any, do you feel you personally have to help fellow Jews in the U.S.,” the answer for almost 58% of Israeli millennial Jews was not much, none at all, or “I don’t know.”
A gap year in Pittsburgh is not only a chance to rectify growing fissures within the Jewish people but build on past engagements, the Shinshinim said.
Through their previous participation in the Diller Teen Fellows Program, attendance at Emma Kaufmann Camp and involvement in EKC’s Israel-based Staff in Training (SIT) Leadership Program, Rotshtain, Bartov and Shafir gained some regional knowledge.
Spending an intensive period in Pittsburgh will give the teens deeper insights, Rotshtain explained.
“I really want to learn more about how strong the connections are in this community, because it feels like a family,” she said. “Everyone knows everybody and there are really good connections between people. I come from a city — it’s not like a big city — but I don’t know all of the people, and I don’t say ‘hi’ to them on the street on a daily basis. I want to know why it’s happening here, and what makes this specific community so special.”
Shafir’s desire to learn about Pittsburgh and Jewish peoplehood began in eighth grade, she said.
At the time, her English teacher was partnering with Community Day School educators on a project to foster friendship. During a Zoom meeting, Shafir heard about the Shinshinim program.
“My mind was blown that you can spend a year abroad with a Jewish community and impact their lives, and they can impact your life,” she said.
Now that she is a Shinshin — the term is an acronym of the Hebrew words sh’nat and sheirut, which means “year of service” — Shafir is eager to meet other Jews and share her love of Israel, drawing, design and sewing.
All the Shinshinim said they can’t wait to begin their service and meet others with similar passions.
Rotshtain played volleyball for six years, has two older sisters in the Israel Defense Forces and enjoys speaking about politics and “current events” she said.
Bartov has two older brothers, enjoys painting, drawing and running, has played piano for several years and danced since she was 3, she said.
Lubman, 18, is a former competitive swimmer who enjoys hiking, running and playing guitar.
While preparing for a year in Pittsburgh, he and the other teens participated in several seminars exploring differences between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, which have already proved helpful, he said.
“Individualism and freedom is way bigger in your state of mind than in ours,” Lubman said.
Whether a conversation involves politics or culture, “the point of view, and the way things are referred to here, is different.”
Moran Tuti, Federation’s Shinshinim coordinator, said that as an Israeli living in Pittsburgh, she craves greater ties between the Diaspora and the Jewish state.
“I feel that teenagers, especially, need more connection with Israel,” she said, adding that the Shinshinim program can help solidify those bonds.
“These Israeli kids are the same age as kids here,” she said. “They will be able to talk, whether it’s about the simplest things or the harder parts.”
Time will tell whether the teens spend the year discussing Israel’s judiciary, populism, democracy or minority rights with similarly aged Pittsburgh youth, but that’s the hope, according to Lubman.
“We don’t want people to be shy,” he said. “Talk to us about the hard stuff; we are friendly. We are here for only one year, and it will go away in seconds.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.