By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — After high school, American kids traditionally do their growing up in dorm rooms and on campuses.
In Israel, high school graduates are obligated to serve in the military or perform another national service for three years. This period of service can be challenging and stressful, so it’s also common for these young adults to travel the world once they complete their duties.
But Meytar Asulin and Martin Abadi, both Israeli citizens in their early 20s, weren’t ready to kick back just yet. The pair chose to begin their worldly adventures through an emissary program that focuses on cultural education, coordinated with Jewish community centers around the United States and Canada. After competitive applications and interviews, the two were assigned to the Schenectady JCC on Balltown Road in Niskayuna.
Mark Weintraub, director of the Schenectady JCC, said the emissary program has been going on there for at least 15 years. Each summer, it’s a highlight for campers and staffers alike.
“They’ve really enriched our JCC community,” he said. “To be able to host them in Niskayuna is quite an honor.”
The pair stayed with a rotating cast of 12 host families in Niskayuna, including Weintraub’s. They moved and mingled constantly. During the week, both Abadi and Asulin worked hard at the JCC, caring for hundreds of campers each day.
Abadi, from the city of Ranaana in central Israel, completed three years in the army and was ready to see the world when he applied for the emissary program. “I really wanted new experience,” he said. He worked with teen campers, accompanying them on travel trips and starting conversations with them about Israeli culture. He also played games with the campers, including some the American kids had never heard of before; he and Asulin amassed a collection of knowledge about camp games and teaching strategies during training before they traveled to Niskayuna.
Asulin, an accomplished ballet dancer from the coastal city of Ashdod, worked to teach immigrants Hebrew as her national service. It was then that she became inspired to teach about her culture internationally. At the JCC, she created her own “Israel room” where campers learned about the geography, food, culture, and language of Israel in a more formal setting. Asulin personalized the experience with touches such as pictures of herself and Abadi in different places in Israel, and said her favorite part was teaching the children Israeli dances.
“They’re so interested in the information and they have so much fun,” she said of the campers.
Their efforts continued even after they completed their work at the JCC each day. Part of the emissary program is promoting intercultural awareness through more casual discussion, and Asulin and Abadi’s trip has had impact beyond the kids they’ve worked with. They both consciously worked to initiate constructive discussions, not just in the abstract, but specifically about the heated conflict ongoing between Israel and Palestine.
“I spoke with a lot of people, Jewish and not Jewish. We try to find a solution and see that sometimes it’s much more difficult there than you think,” Abadi said. Both he and Asulin said they enjoyed engaging with their host families, friends, neighbors and new acquaintances, who were often hungry for more information about the international complexities the emissaries could illuminate.
The two were, and are, very tuned in to every development at home, largely out of concern for their families.
“I live in a city where we get a lot of rockets,” Asulin said. “It’s hard to be away from home in these times, but on the other side I feel a relief that I get to enjoy my summer now.”
Luckily, there were plenty of fun diversions to take the emissaries’ minds off their worries. Their host families worked to make their guests feel at home and took them on trips to nearby places, including Saratoga Springs, New York City and Boston. The local families must have done their jobs well, because the emissaries developed a love for the green lawns and full trees of Niskayuna and the surrounding area in the summertime.
“I know that if I come again to America, I will come here,” said Abadi.
His and Asulin’s new friends hope so, too.
The pair was honored at Town Hall with a ceremonial resolution for their service throughout the summer, and in their final couple of days with their host families, their schedules were booked tight with competing dinner plans.
Leaving Niskayuna after their time here was bittersweet for the emissaries, who became very close with their host families and new friends.
“When we were at [town] hall, every host family was there and I didn’t know where to sit,” Abadi said with a laugh.