Wanted: Hamish Jewish families ready to open their homes and their hearts to independent young Israelis for a few months.
Goal: to create a living bridge between Israel and the United States through cultural and educational exchange.
Bonus: life-altering experience for all.
In both Worcester and Springfield, coordinators for the Young Emissary Program are looking for host families for the four young people from the Afula/Gilboa region who will be arriving in late August.
During their stay, the emissaries will live and work in their respective host communities, bringing Israeli culture to synagogues, Hebrew school classes, youth groups, day schools, JCCs, public, private and parochial schools, Hillel (UMass- Amherst and Clark University) and programs for seniors.
Starting its thirteenth year, the Young Emissary Program, part of Partnership 2Gether, is funded by the Jewish Agency for Israel and individual Jewish Federations. In Worcester, that support comes from the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts and, in Springfield, from the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts. Partnership 2Gether celebrates the connection between Southern New England and the Afula/Gilboa Region in Israel. The Southern New England Consortium (SNEC) includes communities in Connecticut and Massachusetts. SNEC emissaries, 16 in all, come to Greenwich, Westport, Fairfield, New Haven, West Hartford, New London, Springfield and Central Massachusetts.
At 18, the young Israelis are recent high school graduates who have, after a rigorous application process and training, been granted a leave of absence for a year of service, or schlichut, by the IDF. Upon their return home, they will enter the army to complete their required service and then go on to attend college.
For the past five years, Liz Baker has been the coordinator of the program for the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts. She is responsible for setting up schedules for the two young people who come to the Greater Worcester area, a Herculean task, and also must choose the families they are to live with during the year.
Each family hosts an emissary for five months, either from late August to January or January to June. Both parents need not be Jewish, but the family must be actively Jewish, with the children being brought up as Jews.
“The intention is for these kids to have an experience with an American Jewish family,” says Baker.
The emissary must have his or her own bedroom, though the bathroom can be shared. Baker visits each potential home to check it out thoroughly.
Federation provides each young Israeli with a car and a cell phone, and they arrive with their own laptops.
“They’re fairly independent once they arrive,” Baker says, noting that their weekly schedules are packed as they travel from classroom to agency to event throughout the region. Their only day off is Friday.
That said, “They’re 18 years old,” she says. “They could be homesick. At beginning of the year, I like to put them with families who are able and willing to give them TLC – they’re dealing with the language, learning the community and how to get around it, plus their schedule. I’ve always had first host families who’ve done that.”
Worcester has been involved in the program since its inception, and area families and emissaries alike have had marvelous experiences. The young Israelis become part of their host families, making connections that extend far beyond the actual time they spend in the United States.
“Lots of families stay in touch,” says Liz Baker.
This semester, UMass junior Hannah Michlmayr of Worcester, whose family hosted Rivi Behar in the fall of 2012, chose to study in Israel instead of Germany as she had once intended. In July, her parents, Diana Malkin and Klaus Michlmayr, as well as her brother, Kai, will join her in Israel for a reunion with Rivi and her family.
“Hosting an emissary was not something we had planned to do,” says Malkin, “but for us it has been a life changing experience. We have a deeper connection with Israel and another daughter in our family. We are so grateful to the Behar family for being Hannah’s home away from home during her study abroad semester, and we are excited to finally meet them in person and not just via Skype. I know our trip to Israel will be richer and more rewarding because of these connections.”
Meredith Dragon, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, notes that the Springfield area has hosted emissaries for the past three years.
“It’s now part of the culture of the community,” she says. “It’s really quite wonderful.”
JFWM divides the ten month visit into three hosting periods and arranges only the initial host families before the emissaries arrive. They can then bring the young Israelis into the decision process for choosing subsequent families, “giving them a chance to make connections with people here,” she says.
As in Worcester, the coordinator of the emissary program, Rachel Berezin, visits each potential home to make sure it fits the specific SNEC requirements.
Ideally, Springfield host families will have at least one teenager, says Dragon, and they look for a “supportive and nurturing environment where the family takes an interest in what the emissary is doing.”
“All of the hosts have been great,” she says. “The only problem we’ve had is that they don’t want to let the emissaries go!”
Currently, the programs in each community are still looking for host families for the coming year. Liz Baker has identified one family and is continuing to speak to others who are interested. Meredith Dragon notes that they have one potential family in Springfield.
“It’s such a positive program,” says Baker. “We cover the whole spectrum from Reform to Orthodox to unaffiliated. The emissaries don’t get into politics – everybody loves them; they’re like rock stars here. They’re the cream of the crop. I promise – the family will get much more out of the experience than the emissary. They’re part of the family.”
For more information or if you are interested in becoming a host family, please contact Liz Baker at email@example.com or Meredith Dragon at firstname.lastname@example.org.