BY KRISTIN SCHULTZ
NISKAYUNA — As part of the Summer Shlichim Program, two Israeli citizens are helping with summer camps this year at the Schenectady JCC.
Keren Ilan, 21, and Michal Livneh, 20, arrived June 18 and will remain through mid-August.
They have been working as volunteers at the JCC, introducing campers to Israeli and Jewish culture.
Livneh works with campers ranging in age from 3 to 12 years old. She has festooned her classroom with Israeli flags, kids’ art work, the Hebrew alphabet and snack packaging unique to Israel.
“The children ask about what I like to do [in Israel], and about my army experience,” Livneh said. “I brought in Israeli bubble gum and they liked that.”
Ilan said her students, ages 11 to 14, also ask about life in Israel, including what kind of music she likes and whether there are TVs and pizza in Israel.
“It’s a chance to explain one on one and have a personal connection,” Ilan said.
The Schenectady JCC has participated in the program for more than 20 years. Each year it welcomes the young counselors and places them with different host families in the area. The counselors and families spend time getting to know one another and comparing lifestyles.
This is Livneh’s first time in the United States. She thought it would be busier, and was surprised to find it relaxing and full of trees.
Ilan has visited the U.S. before but never stayed with a family or in an American home.
“All the houses are so big,” she said.
She was also surprised by the amount of products available at the grocery store, noting that in Israel there is only one variety of Oreo or Snyder’s pretzel.
Both Ilan and Livneh wanted to participate in the program because they wanted to do something more after their military obligation ended. They said that typically when young Israelis complete their mandatory military service, they’ll go on an extended tour or vacation.
“After the army I wanted to do something special,” said Livneh. “I found out about the program from friends and wanted to volunteer and learn about American culture.”
Ilan agreed. “I didn’t want to just go on a trip,” she said. “This is an opportunity to go somewhere else and teach about Jewish culture and learn new things.”
The Summer Shlichim program is run through The Jewish Agency for Israel and admission is highly competitive. Candidates are screened and go through a series of interviews, including by JCC staff.
“They do a lot and add value to the camp,” said JCC Executive Director Mark Weintraub. “They are terrific people.”
The counselors are also able to keep close contact with their friends and family at home via social media and messaging apps.
Both Ilan and Livneh plan to attend university, Ilan to study psychology and cognition, and Livneh psychology and special education.
The Niskayuna Town Board honored the counselors with a ceremonial resolution at its July 25 meeting.
“For them, Niskayuna is America,” said Weintraub.