BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Every year for more than 15 years running, the Schenectady JCC and its community members host two young Israelis for an entire summer, shuffling them between doting local families. And every year, the visitors rise to the occasion, educating young summer campers while simultaneously exploring the northeastern United States.
This summer, 22-year-old Tomer Aldubi from Tel Aviv and 23-year-old Shahar Bar-meir from the Eshkol region were Niskayuna’s chosen transplants.
“They’re a huge part to our programming,” said JCC summer camp director Val Santillo.
Bar-meir mainly stayed at the summer camp and taught children about Israel in a room she designed and decorated. She organized everything from a “word of the day,” presented each morning to the campers in a short, clever play that mixes Hebrew and English, to lessons on holidays and geography and traditions.
Aldubi typically accompanied the travel campers to their daily destinations, although the two would switch places occasionally, just for fun.
Santillo said the experience enriches all the campers with a balance of learning and fun, making them “more worldly” when they head back to school.
“Not everyone is Jewish,” she added.
In fact, the two emissaries, or Shlichim, said that was one of the things that surprised them most about arriving at the JCC: They hadn’t realized how many of the children would be learning about the Jewish faith for the first time.
“Two-thirds of our members are not Jewish,” JCC Executive Director Mark Weintraub said. In big cities, Jewish community centers tend not to be as diverse.
The two Israeli counselors had met once prior to coming to the United States and planned their first week of lessons for the camp, but after getting to know the kids and realizing many were learning about Israel for the first time, they had to change course.
“Their mission changed a little bit,” Weintraub said.
In addition to teaching the children at the JCC, the shlichim learned a lot from one another. Aldubi is from one of Israel’s largest cities, where people can dance and party into the night at dance clubs that could blend in well with the United States.
The Eshkol Region, where Bar-meir grew up, is a desert area where innovation has allowed agriculture to flourish. People there live in kibbutzim, which are communal settlements. They also live quite close to the Gaza Strip, an area currently plagued by violence.
Bar-meir is quick to remind people that the dangers do not outweigh her love for her hometown.
“Even in Israel people think it’s scary. It’s not,” she said. “This is my life. This is my home.”
That said, the occasional rocket alarms warning people to find shelter within fifteen seconds and the knowledge of nearby armed skirmishes can be troubling.
“It’s hard, especially for kids,” she said.
Children often stay with other people during dangerous times, other members of the kibbutz who distract kids with trips to amusement parks and other diversions.
“This is what’s nice in kibbutzim,” she said.
Because of her hometown, Bar-meir had a local connection even before arriving in the Capital Region. Eshkol is a sister city to the region.
Years ago, this meant that people from the Capital Region worked to combat poverty in Eshkol. However, as Israel has become more self-sufficient, focus has shifted to interpersonal relationships and, sometimes, funding special projects. For example, the partnership allowed people from the Capital Region to foot the bill for a trauma center in the Eshkol region, where people can get help for anything from physical injury to psychological troubles.
“The nature of war has changed in the world,” Weintraub said. “All that definitely is a disruption of life.”
But Bar-meir is not one to dwell on the negative, and she would rather talk about the positive experiences she’s had while acting as an emissary, a position for which there is much competition among young Israelis. The trip marked her first visit to the United States.
“It’s kind of like the movies,” she said about America. “All the movies and the TV shows are American in Israel.
“Things are bigger,” she added.
Aldubi agreed. In Tel Aviv, he can walk fifteen or 20 minutes to run his errands or visit a friend. Here, though, it’s difficult to function without a car.
“It’s big,” he echoed.
But friendly, too.
“Two weeks is a long time to host someone in your house,” Aldubi said gratefully of his host families. “I met amazing people.”