Why would Nisso Bejar, an 18-year-old Israeli who just graduated from Ironi Hey high school in Haifa, choose to delay his mandatory military service and spend a year abroad volunteering in the Jewish community of Boston as a “Shinshin,” a young ambassador for Israel?
There are no doubt many reasons, but a primary motivation was Nisso’s own family background: his parents were not born in Israel, but rather in Mexico. They made aliya (immigrated) to Israel in their early 20s and left behind all their family in the Diaspora. Nisso understood from his frequent visits to Mexico to spend time with his relatives the challenges of trying to preserve one’s Jewish identity as a minority outside of Israel. So for him, it was important to experience Diaspora living in the United States, both to better understand the largest and most important center of Jewish life outside of Israel, and to help in strengthening the bonds of young American Jews to the State of Israel, the country that his own parents chose just a few decades ago.
By gaining perspective on Israel from the outside, Nisso is better able to understand why his parents fell in love with Israel, something that is much harder to grasp if you never leave home.
Nisso understood that Jewish identity in the Diaspora is not to be taken for granted. He also experienced how special it was for Diaspora Jews to experience the holy sites in Israel. For the Israeli Jew, the Kotel (Western Wall) is at times taken for granted. But Nisso witnessed first-hand the impact of Jerusalem on his own Mexican cousins. It made him understand the importance of bringing Israel to the Diaspora to strengthen Jewish identity.
And that is the essence of the mission of the Shinshin.
I asked Nisso what he has felt or learned about Israel since he has been here and been able to get some distance on his country. By speaking so often about Israel, as a young ambassador, he realizes for example how excited he is to enter military service next year. For Nisso, and for most Israelis, though army service is mandatory, it is something they look forward enthusiastically to participate in. This year, being away from home, when he hears from his friends about their army experience, it only makes him more eager to be a part of the Israel Defense Forces next year, as he realizes that his very own 18 and 19 year old friends are now protecting him and his family. This makes Nisso proud. And it is the very experience of sharing this pride this to the Boston Jewish community that causes Nisso to reflect on the deeper significance of that military service—protecting friends and family.
Needless to say, living as a Jewish minority here, as opposed to the majority in Israel, is very eye-opening. In the teen and preteen Shabbatons that he is a part of, much effort goes into creating activities that make Shabbat engaging and relevant for Jewish young people. In Israel, where you are surrounded by Shabbat, no extra effort is needed to remind you that you are living in Jewish time. It is thrilling for Nisso to share common Hebrew songs with Jewish children in Needham, Marblehead and Dedham, where he spends most of his time, filling him with a deep feeling of Jewish solidarity. Temple Beth Shalom, Cohen Hillel Academy and the Rashi School are the main venues for Nisso’s work. He and fellow Shinshin Dor Yohay have also engaged with children and adults at Gann Academy, Kehillath Israel, Brookline and Needham High Schools, Kesher, St John’s Prep, just to name a few. Nisso has also had some very exciting speaking opportunities facilitated by the Israeli Consulate upon the occasions of the visit by Dalia Rabin and a recent tribute at the 12th Baptist Church to Martin Luther King. The depth of the remarks Nisso has offered concerning the Rabin assassination and the limits of freedom of speech, and the need for greater tolerance and mutual respect among all peoples have had a profound impact on our community.
Nisso will have his work cut out for him when he returns to Israel after his Boston experience. He said it makes him sad that so many of his fellow Israelis have so little exposure to Diaspora Jews and more often than not, regard them solely as sources of financial support for Israel. Fighting stereotypes about Israel is what Nisso is doing in Boston this year. Next year and going forward, he will be educating Israelis and pushing back on their stereotypical views of American Jews.
CJP’s Boston-Haifa Connection that supports this Shinshinim Young Ambassadors Program has always understood that it is only through people to people relationships that we will strengthen both Israel and our own Jewish community. The experience of living all year with two host families in Needham and Newton is one of the best parts of the experience. While Nisso initially worried about having to be “on” 24/7 as a young ambassador for Israel, he was so fully accepted and welcomed by these families that he now knows that they will be lifelong and very special friends, who will always share a very personal connection to Haifa and to Israel.
By interacting with hundreds of fellow Jews and others this year, our Shinshin Nisso is cementing our mutual ties that are needed to ensure our Jewish future, with Israel as our anchor.
Ruth is the former director of the Boston-Haifa Connection and is the proud supervisor of the Shinshin program, now in its second year. Shinshin is an abbreviation for “Sh’nat Sherut,” or “year of service” in Hebrew.