By Laura Porter
WORCESTER – The Young Emissary Program is celebrating its bar mitzvah, and it’s time for a party.
The program, which brings young Israelis on the eve of their military service to spend a year in New England, began 13 years ago. It is part of Partnership 2Gether, which celebrates the connection between Southern New England and the Afula/Gilboa region in Israel.
Annually, 16 emissaries travel to the thirteen communities in Connecticut and Massachusetts that are part of the Southern New England Consortium (SNEC). They stay with host families and bring the gift of Israeli culture to synagogues and religious schools as well as youth and college groups. The program is supported by the Jewish Agency for Israel and local Jewish Federations.
Fittingly, in Central Massachusetts, the celebration in this thirteenth year will take place on April 26 as part of the community’s observance of Yom Ha’aztmaut (Israeli Independence Day).
Co-chaired by Wendy Wong and Talia Mugg, the festivities will include stations, food and music. It is run by the Jewish Educator Forum and generously supported by the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts.
The final half hour will focus on the Young Emissary Program’s coming of age, says Liz Baker, who has been the program’s coordinator in Central Massachusetts for the past six years.
In particular, past and present host families will be honored. Emissaries usually stay with at least two host families, switching homes partway through their year in the United States.
All of the approximately thirty families who have taken part have been asked to put together “a 30-60 second anecdote of when the emissary was living with them,” she says. “There are always funny stories about their English or their reactions to driving or the food.”
The families will be invited up for a candle lighting ceremony, each year’s hosts lighting one of thirteen candles.
“We hope to have lots of representation,” she says.
This year’s emissary in Central Massachusetts, Aviv Jerbi, is preparing a video that includes photographs of all of the former emissaries.
“There are pictures showing them when they were thirteen, when they were here, and what they’re doing now,” says Baker. “It’s great to see how well they’ve done.”
Finally, the festivities will end with Israeli dancing. Reena Slovin has been working with members of WESTY and USY, two of the area youth groups, to teach them dances for the event.
“After the dancing, everyone can come up for a hora, and that will be the end of the afternoon,” Baker says.
Congressman Jim McGovern will be attending, invited by City Councilor Moe Bergman, whose family has hosted emissaries. Clark Hillel will be tabling with information about Birthright, and all of the area rabbis have been enthusiastic and supportive. Indeed, Rabbi Aviva Fellman of Congregation Beth Israel is currently hosting Aviv Jerbi, who lives with her family. (He stayed with Mary Jane Rein and Seth Kates for the first part of the year.)
“The greatest thing about our program is that we have across-the-spectrum representation,” says Liz Baker. “We cover it from Chabad to the unaffiliated.”
In addition, she says, the program is as successful as it is because “we have great participation from the community as well as the host families.”
In addition to Federation’s ongoing support, the Melvin S. Cutler Charitable Foundation gave $300,000 last year to start an endowment fund for the program.
And, says Baker, “we’re surrounded by such wonderful people who help out.”
She credits everyone from the “physicians and dentists I have to call throughout the year as the kids get sick” to her husband, Joel Baker, “who takes care of the cars” to “the educators who oversee the emissaries at their workplaces.”
The latter includes Talia Mugg (Pardes), Rabbi Joe Eiduson (B’nai Shalom), Wendy Wong (Hebrew High), David Coyne (Clark Hillel) and Debbie Fruchtman (Congregation Agudat Achim in Leominster).
Like any bar mitzvah, it’s a family affair.