July 18, 2019

Young ‘Shinshinim’ Bring Israel to America

The 13 Israeli teens volunteering in Los Angeles this year through the Jewish Agency for Israel; Photo courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel

Until last summer, Itay Muntz, who grew up in Kfar Yedidia in central Israel, had never been to the United States. But in August the 19-year-old arrived in Los Angeles for a volunteer stint at Lashon Academy Charter School, a public school in Van Nuys with a robust Hebrew language program. 

Muntz is one of 13 shinshinim (emissaries) currently doing a year of service in Los Angeles through the Jewish Agency for Israel. Some, like Muntz, are working at schools; others are at synagogues or other Jewish organizations.

Shinshinim is the Jewish Agency’s Young Ambassadors Program, which began 21 years ago in Connecticut with just two Israeli young adults. While it is not uncommon for Israeli teens to defer their military service to do a year of volunteer work, nearly all of the opportunities are in Israel. The Jewish Agency is the only organization that offers service opportunities outside of Israel. It is highly competitive, with a rigorous and comprehensive application process. Only about 10 percent of initial applicants land positions, according to Tal Lipschitz, regional director to the West for the Jewish Agency.  

This year, there are a total of 170 shinshinim working in countries around the world. The bulk of them are in the United States and Canada. But this is the first year the agency’s program has come to Los Angeles. Among the organizations participating, in addition to Lashon Academy, are Wise School, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Shomrei Torah Synagogue, Sinai Akiba Academy, Pressman Academy, Shalom Institute and Ami School (an extracurricular Hebrew program). 

Organizations split the costs of their shinshinim (airfare, a modest monthly stipend, rental car, insurance, etc.) with the Jewish Agency. The Jewish Federation subsidizes the program. Students live with host families. Most live with at least two different families over the course of their stay. The idea is to ease the burden on families who commit to providing “food and warmth and open arms,” Lipschitz said. 

Every Monday, the shinshinim gather for a few hours to talk about their successes and struggles, sometimes listen to a guest speaker or just hang out.

For Muntz, the experience has been even better than he expected. He misses home and has confronted language and cultural barriers, but the families and staff at Lashon “really embrace us,” he said. “They really took us into the school family.” 

Along with the other shinshinim placed at Lashon, Muntz helps with Hebrew instruction at the school, often working with students who need extra support or those who could use additional challenges. With help from the school site supervisor, he and his colleague also crafted the curriculum for an Israel study program and are leading regular 30-minute classes.

Muntz said he especially appreciates being able to connect the Israeli-American and Jewish-American students to their heritage. But he is equally passionate about introducing the school’s Latino students to Israel.

Nearly all of the organizations that signed on this year have signed up for next year, when Los Angeles will play host to 16 shinshinim. This includes Wise School, where Malka Clement is the director of Hebrew and Judaic Studies. 

According to Clement, Wise’s shinshin is “like the Pied Piper. Wherever you see him, you see a line of kids following him. … Our emissary is doing exactly what the Jewish Agency sets as their goal. He has brought Israel to us as a young face, with current issues, really making sure that every family in this community knows [him] deeply and meaningfully.”

Added Lipschitz, “Besides the [shinshinim] talking about Israel, we really count on them to go back to Israel and bring back to the Israeli people and the country what they learn about here. This is our mission at the Jewish Agency. We want to create one peoplehood. Shinshinim are big game changers.”