Shinshiniot, left to right, Ophir Golombek, Tomer Tetro and Lian Swissa. (photo by Michelle Dodek)
Nine months ago, Ophir Golombek, Lian Swissa and Tomer Tetro were just the names of three Israeli 18-year-olds brought to Vancouver by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Having spent the school year helping at Vancouver Talmud Torah (VTT), Richmond Jewish Day School (RJDS), King David High School (KDHS), the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and the Hebrew schools at congregations Beth Israel, Beth Tikvah and Temple Sholom, these young women are now known and loved by many across the Lower Mainland.
The women have been here for a shnat sherut (year of service, for which the acronym is shinshin) before entering the army, not as an alternative to time in uniform. The program has been running in other cities for more than a decade, but this was the first year for Vancouver. Designed to spread a connection and love for the people and country of Israel, the shinshiniot (female plural for shinshin) engaged the youth of Vancouver’s Jewish community through dance, song, food and educational programming.
The Shinshin program hinges on a series of homestay experiences where families with children in high school or younger host a shinshin for a three-month period. Federation works to match each shinshin with families that are a good fit in order to facilitate a connection between the families and the shinshiniot, sharing the Canadian experience and Israeli culture while bonding as Jewish people.
“The best thing about the year was the host families,” said Swissa. “I made amazing deep connections and was welcomed as part of the family. It’s such a crucial part of the program.”
The Friedman-Leidemann family – parents Diane and Mark and 13-year-old son Isaac – opened their home to Golombek. Living very close to VTT, it was convenient for Golombek to get to and from her daily work at the school and the family was happy to open their home to her.
“Hosting Ophir was a lovely experience,” said Friedman. “We have hosted ‘traditional’ homestays for 10 years, so we have lots of experience to compare this to and it was truly wonderful.”
She added, however, that having the shinshiniot work six days a week made exploring very difficult. “It would be nice if the girls could have a two- to three-day weekend once a month so that they could explore areas near Vancouver not conducive to day trips,” said Friedman.
Lissa Weinberger, manager of Jewish education and identity initiatives at Federation, was tasked with rolling out the Shinshin program in Vancouver. “It has been an amazing first year,” she said. “From the first time I had a child excitedly talk about the visit their class had from the shinshin to the last goodbye hugs, there has not been an experience quite like this in Vancouver. The biggest highlight of the year was having them for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. Our community and especially our kids had such a positive Israeli experience, one that could only be created by the firsthand experience of Israeli teens.”
The year has not been without its challenges. Federation recognizes that culture shock and homesickness were real issues, and they plan to have a native Hebrew-speaking social worker or psychologist as part of the support team next year. They are currently reaching out for host families, as well. “We are looking for families who have the routine of the school year, of having kids, because hosting a shinshin is bringing a teenager into your family,” said Weinberger.
Tanyss Bugis, who has two teenagers attending KDHS, said, “Hosting Lian was good for our family and my teenaged kids and it was good for Lian. For us, it was a terrific experience.”
The skills and warmth of the shinshiniot were put to a variety of uses over the year. Tetro is an accomplished dancer and she worked with Grade 4s at VTT and RJDS to prepare for Festival Ha’Rikud. At Beth Israel, Swissa used her artistic skills to create props and 3-D games about Israeli customs, culture and holiday celebrations. All three women did Israeli programming at the synagogue Hebrew schools, where they worked alternating Sundays; the weekends they were not at Hebrew school, they provided youth programming on Shabbat mornings.
“The kids we met now have a better understanding of the complexity of being a teen in Israel,” said Swissa. “They have a better idea that Israel is a nuanced, complex country. We were also able to bring a better understanding of really important events like Yom Hazikaron.”
During the school week, RJDS, VTT, KDHS and the JCC had programming provided by one or more of the shinshiniot. Golombek was full-time at VTT, visiting the classes with age-appropriate lessons on everything from women in Israeli society and history to Yom Hazikaron traditions. Jennifer Shecter-Balin, director of admissions and communications at VTT, said, “Having a young Israeli emissary at the school was a logical and natural way to build bridges with – and interest in – Israel.”
Shecter-Balin also acted as a host-mother. “For our family, hosting a shinshinit was a wonderfully positive experience,” she said. “After our time with Ophir, we feel as though we now have another close family member living in Israel and we anticipate maintaining our bond. We would definitely host again!”
Of the challenges, Shecter-Balin said there were inevitable hiccups but that VTT sees the benefits of increasing the scope of the program with two shinshiniot for next year. “We anticipate a smoother transition and integration with two emissaries working together and supporting each other,” she said.
During Shabbat services on June 25, Swissa organized a party with Israeli snacks and games. It turned out to be a surprise farewell party for her, too. It was the second such party for her on a Shabbat morning; the other was for her 19th birthday.
“We love having Lian here. She’s awesome!” said 10-year-old Aria Levitt.
Swissa said it was hard for her to say goodbye to the kids. “As a shinshinit, we develop a deep connection to the kids. It’s sad to say goodbye.”
Not quite finished their service in our community yet, Tetro is off to Camp Hatikvah for the summer and Golombek will be at Camp Miriam. Both will help with programming, adding to the already rich Zionist fabric of the camps. Swissa continues her stay in Vancouver contributing an Israeli flavor to the JCC’s Camp Shalom.
Tetro summed up her experience in a goodbye speech at a party thrown by Federation for the shinshiniot. “The Jewish community here is amazing and I am so grateful to have been part of it,” she said. “I am so thankful to have met all these incredible people, thank you for being my extended family for the year.”
Federation is looking for families to host a shinshinit for a three-month period in the coming school year. The new group of four young women will arrive at the end of August for an orientation. If you are interested in being a host family, contact Federation at [email protected] or call Shelley Rivkin at 604-527-5111.
Michelle Dodek is a mother and a writer in Vancouver whose children benefited greatly from their relationships with the shinshiniot.