An offhand comment by Ido Sarig, 18, of Rosh HaAyin got a group of young Israelis in Whippany discussing strange American foods.
“I tried toast with butter sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar,” said Sarig. “It’s so delicious but so weird. And why do Americans put ketchup on eggs?”
There were giggles around a long conference table in a room at the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus. Hadar Tal, 17, of Rishon Letzion added, “Pizza with pasta — that’s crazy!” Commenting on the size of American vegetables, he added, “I can play baseball with the cucumbers and tomatoes!”
Cross-cultural (and cross-culinary) “lessons” like these are just part of the experience for Israeli teens chosen for the annual “Rishonim” program of the Israel Program Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Since arriving at the end of August for their year-long stay, the six Israeli teens — Sarig, Tal, Izhak Wodage, Ligal Peretz, Eli Goren, and Yuval Dafadi — have been serving as informal ambassadors, providing educational programs on Israel and its culture to local synagogues, schools, and other settings. All have deferred their army service to take part in the program.
Hosted by families throughout the Greater MetroWest region, they will switch hosts in February, halfway through the year.
Gathering in an IPC office on Sept. 22, about a month after their arrival, they discussed their early impressions of the community, their goals, and some of the challenges they have faced — especially in speaking about the operation in Gaza over the summer.
They were joined at the table by two slightly older Israelis who have already completed their army service. As shlihim, or community emissaries, Roni Kollender of Lehavim and Maor Tirry of Arad, both 23, arrived with the Rishonim and will stay for two years, living in their own apartments in the community.
All but one of the Rishonim previously spent time in the United States. A few have connections in the Greater MetroWest community, either through their participation in the Diller Teen Fellows program, Project Gesher, or other similar bridge-building federation-sponsored programs.
Wodage, 18, of Rishon Letzion said he already felt completely settled. Perhaps that is because had gotten to know his host family during a previous visit to Greater MetroWest as a Diller fellow.
Tal, who had not been to the States before, said, “I thought that everywhere I go I will see Catholics. Instead, everywhere I go, there are Jews!”
Whether or not they had been here before, all gave a similar explanation for being here. “I want to speak about my country. I love to educate and to teach, to work with Jewish people abroad,” said Tirry.
Some have been amazed at the hospitality they have received. Peretz, 18, of Arad said she started to feel homesick the second week. “My heart was squeezed a little,” she said, but added, “I feel surrounded by love.”
Said Sarig: “I did not know it would be like a big family. Everyone wants to take care of you in MetroWest” — or, as he quipped — “MetroBest.”
When the war broke out over the summer and their friends were being drafted or called up for service, a few acknowledged that they had second thoughts. Not Eli Goren, 18, of Ra’anana. “I knew the best place to be would be here, to explain to people here Israel’s perspective, rather than in the army, just starting off,” she said.
Dafadi, 18, of Rishon Letzion has already become immersed in the community, and, along with Sarig, was among those participating in a Sept. 20 panel on Israel at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, where she was asked about her thoughts on Operation Protective Edge.
“We felt it was a great opportunity to share our personal stories,” she said.
Tirry did something similar with a group of boys from Elizabeth’s Jewish Educational Center on a retreat in the Catskills. “I got a friend to do a video interview [from Israel] while rockets were falling,” he said.
Although open to hearing what Americans think about the war, Tirry said, he was surprised by some of the opinions he heard while working at a camp in St. Louis during the summer.
Most Jews he discussed the issue with “were against the operation,” he said. “I was in shock. It was weird.”
Regarding such reactions, Peretz said, she has decided to keep an open mind. “I respect everyone’s thoughts and ideas, and I know they respect mine. It’s okay to speak with people on the other side. It’s good to learn about the other side, and it’s good for them to learn about us.
“We’re here to share our ideas, thoughts, and love for this community.”
Kollender took a slightly more hard-line approach. “I’m not afraid to criticize my country out loud but there’s a red line I am not willing to cross: saying I don’t have the right to exist. Once this line is crossed, the conversation is not productive. Otherwise, I’m willing to listen.”
On a lighter note, Tirry said his biggest challenge so far has been driving around Elizabeth.
Together, all the emissaries will work with 30 institutions, including day schools, synagogues, youth movements, and universities in the area. Their job is to develop relationships that help them communicate their knowledge of and love for Israel to the local Jewish community. Each shaliah or shliha is assigned specific agencies or communities.
Wodage said he was incorporating the approach of the 1980s Israeli television show Bli Sodot, or Without Secrets, in his initial activities at Golda Och Academy in West Orange. The show “teaches Israeli kids the language in a funny way,” he explained. “That’s what I’m doing.”
Dafadi, working with religious schools at synagogues, has experienced a learning curve similar to many young people in their first jobs. “I love the work, but still, preparing all the activities, I keep asking myself, ‘How will I do it?’ and ‘Do I have enough time?’ and ‘How will I manage my time?’ I have so many things to do.”
But, she added, what has been helping her has been her host family. “They are so supportive,” she said.